Imagine that your local parish church received 12 million visitors from all over the world every year, but the majority of your visitors had little or no understanding of Jesus Christ and his story or the Catholic faith?
What could you do to help many visitors know more about Jesus Christ and be more intrigued by the Catholic faith by the time they leave? That is the question facing Catholic leaders overseeing the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is a question that has ignited significant controversy even though the purpose of the proposed changes is to make the cathedral and Christianity accessible for those not raised in a Christian society.
As one priest friend who has celebrated Mass at Notre Dame pointed out, the vast majority who enter Notre Dame are tourists, not parishioners or Catholics making a pilgrimage. They go because they are in Paris and this is one of the great sights of Paris! The proposed changes won’t make Notre Dame into a tourist destination. Notre Dame has already been a tourist destination for centuries!
What if the person walking across the threshold is a 20-year-old European or North American agnostic who has zero Christian background but is visiting Paris with a semester-abroad class? Or part of the 89% of French citizens who are not certain that God exists? Or a Muslim or Hindu tourist? A regular “tourist” may not even recognize a crucifix, much less understand what it stands for. They may not even believe Jesus was a historical man who really lived (which recent studies have found is true of significant numbers of British young adults).
I know from my own experience what it means to enter a religious world that nothing in my background has prepared me to understand. I am Catholic today because as a completely clueless fundamentalist undergrad, I crossed the threshold of a neo-Gothic Catholic church near my campus and felt the Real Presence of Jesus. None of the statues or icons or stained glass windows had any meaning for me. The church happened to be named Blessed Sacrament but I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the name meant. That mystical encounter leapt across a void of breathtaking ignorance, creating a bridge of spiritual trust that has changed the whole course of my life.
Personally, I wish, that in addition to signs and other visual explanations, the cathedral could also provide trained “Ananiases” — evangelizing Catholic companions — formed to serve visitors to the cathedral as spiritual and historical tour guides. I would also love to see intercessors praying quietly in the sanctuary for the work of the Holy Spirit in all who visit throughout the day.
One Parisian friend described Notre Dame this way, “the entire cathedral is filled with biblical scenes (Old and New) everywhere you look. It’s a living Bible and catechism wrapped into one. But, she noted “you really needed to prepare your visit beforehand — internet research, a guidebook, or pay a guide — to get the most out of it. Not to mention a small pair of binoculars! I live here and I LOVED bringing visiting friends and family to see it and pointing things out and just seeing their faces light up in awe when they started to see beyond the stone and glass!”
The Archdiocese of Paris has a remarkable opportunity — in the most famous and spectacular house of worship in a highly de-Christianized country — to provide a powerful opportunity for an initial encounter with Christ and the Christian faith for millions of non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics every year. Let’s pray for and support the archdiocesan efforts to make visiting Notre Dame de Paris a chance to meaningfully encounter Jesus Christ.