6 April 2019 ━ As I write this article, the eight centuries old, medieval Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is in flames. According to the BBC, the spire and the roof have collapsed but the main frame of the building is still intact.
Notre Dame de Paris, as it is simply called is truly an iconic cathedral building that has withstood the ravages of time including the French revolution of 1789, an 1871 Commune uprising and two world wars. BBC’s Henri Astier describes it as “an enduring embodiment of France.” No other site represents France quite like the Notre Dame. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Western Europe.
Describing the unfolding catastrophe, Astier writes: “Many of those looking on as flames engulf the building are in tears. Their dismay is shared by believers and non-believers alike in a nation where faith has long ceased to be a binding force.” Could one consider the Notre Dame fire as yet one of a continuing string of bad omens for the Catholic Church that may lead to its ultimate demise as an institution?
Here is a light-hearted story I have borrowed from religious writer and former Catholic priest Michael Leach.
“Napoleon Bonaparte once told a cardinal that he could destroy the Catholic Church with his fists, in an instant, if he wanted to. The Cardinal laughed and said, “We clergy have been trying to destroy the church for eighteen hundred years with our sins and stupidity but haven’t come close. What makes you think you can do better?”
Apocryphal anecdote more than likely but nonetheless a funny story with a bite that could very well have come from one of the monologues of American TV comedian Bill Maher. Maybe not so apocryphal in light of recent happenings in the Catholic Church which most of us know. (In the interest of transparency, this writer is a cradle Catholic who hopes and prays to die a Catholic in good standing.)
I am referring of course to the past and ongoing tragedy of child sexual abuse… and coverup in the Church. Just to mention four prominent names accused and convicted of such heinous crimes/wrongdoings:
1. Fr Marcial Maciel, Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, accused since the 1970’s of sexually abusing minors, fathered a total of 6 children with three different women. St John Paul II, due to Maciel’s old age, did not prosecute him but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI forced him to retire from public ministry in 2006. He died in 2008.
2. Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, in one case accused of covering up the sexual abuse of 130 children by a priest who was moved among the parishes rather than being reported to the authorities. Cardinal Law, now deceased, was transferred to a sinecure position in Rome after the scandal.
3. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, defrocked or laicised in 2018 over sex crimes against minors and adult seminarians.
4. And of course our very own Cardinal George Pell, the highest ranked church Prelate (after the Pope and the Vatican Secretary of State) convicted of child sexual abuse, case pending appeal hearing on June. We all know the sordid media stories of this cause célèbre.
Several years ago, Michael Leach wrote a book entitled: “Why Stay Catholic? Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question.” What is my answer? Same as Michael’s: I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water. “The baby is precious, it’s real, it never grows old, can still give joy, peace, and assurance, and it’s not dependent on people.”
I very highly recommend this Leach book. Where else can one find words of truth such as and I quote him once again: “We live in a dualistic world. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God,’ the poet Hopkins reminds us, but it’s also riddled with opposites ━ good and bad; hot and cold; pleasure and pain; happy and sad; war and peace; rich and poor; black and white; … the joy of victory and the agony of defeat; you name it, or not.
Fortunately, we have Christ’s promise: “In this world, you shall have trial and tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)