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Betsy Kneepkens: Should the Cathedral of Notre Dame be rebuilt?

I have never been very adventurous, so I haven’t sought out trips to exotic places. I had found my family life and what all that has encompassed exciting enough.

Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Five years ago, I heard about a pilgrimage to Europe that was being set up in our diocese. Immediately I found the trip to holy places like Lourdes and Fatima, along with sacred sites in Spain and France, intriguing. I rejected any notion that I would travel, because I had four kids at home with plenty to do. Shortly after I learned about the trip, I called my sister, who was a recent empty-nester, to see if she would be interested in the information. In that instant, my sister said, “Well, let’s go!” I was caught off guard, because I don’t do things like that.

When my sister proposed the idea that we go on this pilgrimage, I dismissed the concept almost as soon as the suggestion was made. Coincidentally, at the same time she encouraged me to go with her, I was pondering a way to sincerely thank a large number of people who had helped my family through a difficult time. It did not take too much for the Holy Spirit to inspire me to see the pilgrimage as a means to prayerfully thank others through my relationship with God.

To make a long story shorter, out of this proposal to go on a pilgrimage and my need to express gratitude, I came up with my “Thanksgiving Pilgrimage” — ten days filled with praying for the intentions of so many kind people, in holy places throughout Europe. This concept seemed to satisfy an urge to respond to kindness in a way that at least partially answered my need to give back.

Many amazing experiences happened in those ten days, but one particular moment is weighing heavy on my heart right now. Toward the end of the pilgrimage, our group was able to go to Paris and spend time at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Not only was I able to tour the facility, I was able to sit in prayer offering up my intentions for all the people I dedicated the trip to. It never occurred to me that the near demise of this 850-year old Cathedral would happen just five years later. Like the rest of the world, I watched sadly as the building burned.

I have reflected much in the past few days about the Cathedral, my experience and what I think should be done with the structure going forward. I believe, architecturally and aesthetically, few buildings are more brilliant. For me, the Cathedral spoke more about the story of our faith than the grandeur of the structure. When I was there, I saw many exhaling their oohs and ahhs, which was a commentary on what a masterpiece the building was. I wonder, however, if the original designers and artisans would have preferred the place be filled with worshipers who inhaled the spirit, the meaning, and the purpose of their work instead.

My stomach ached when I heard the French president say that he pledged to rebuild Notre Dame in five years. What burned down in mid-April was a visible sign of two centuries of craftsmen’s prayers offering up their skills for God’s glory. Five years of construction to return it to its former design, as proposed by the French president, although well-intended, sounds like the true meaning and purpose of the structure have been lost.

For those that have traveled to Europe, you will quickly discover that many churches and basilica have become museums. Group photos or selfies have replaced the purpose of prayer and worship in these buildings. My limited experience there would say, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was not too far from the same rep rposing.

France boasts some 13 million visitors to Notre Dame each year. Instead of 30,000 daily tourists, I can only imagine the building originators would have preferred that Cathedral boasted 30,000 faithful attending Mass each day. Or better yet, instead of the media reporting on images of Jesus’ face in the flames, it would be greater if commentators marveled at the fact that the Body of Christ, soul and divinity, remained present in Notre Dame for nearly a millennium. Now that speaks of purpose!

So should the Cathedral of Notre Dame be rebuilt? For me, this is a difficult question. Should the artisan’s prayers of two centuries be reduced to five years of construction? I can’t say that I support that. Should fear of the economic impact on France be the reason for the rebuild? I struggle to feel comfortable about that notion too.

If few people question the fact that it took less than three days to raise over a billion dollars to restore what many consider a tourist attraction, should we not ask if rebuilding this “memorial” is a wise use of money? I think we should question it.

If the French call the Cathedral of Notre Dame the soul of their country, what does that say when only five percent of French Catholics go to Sunday Mass each week? I think the Church in France needs to answer some very challenging questions first.

If the burning of the building has stirred the hearts of many because they have realized a tangible sign of their relations with God is no longer present, that is hopeful. If the rebuilders’ purpose is to glorify God in a holy way, then further dialogue is optimistic. If contributors realize a greater need exists to serve the poor and vulnerable in France, then holiness may be more rightly ordered.

The burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its reconstruction is a larger question about our Catholic faith and how we can serve our heavenly Father. This horrific incident cannot just be solved by generous people writing huge checks. Since the world cares about this Cathedral, the world must dialogue about the spirit, the meaning, and the purpose of this worship space going forward.

When we have carefully discerned and listened to the Holy Spirit, the church will know how to rightly proceed. I am not sure that I will be as adventurous as I was five years ago, but if I do I will be eager to see how the church discerned a holy solution to the burning down of Notre Dame.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.