ROME – While presenting a Holy See exhibit that will take place in Beijing in late April, the Vatican’s culture czar on Tuesday reflected on the near-destruction of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and attempted to offer “an optimistic view” in what he described as “a dark moment.”
“I was struck in an evocative way by the many Parisians and tourists who were filmed crying before this spectacle,” said Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, during a press conference at the Vatican April 16.
“It shows that the cathedral, all the great cathedrals and great basilicas, are actually living organisms,” he said.
Monday evening Parisians and citizens all over the world watched in anguish as the more than 800-year old Cathedral of Notre Dame, a symbol of art and Catholicism in the heart of the city of Paris, France, was engulfed in flames.
Live footage showed the spire of the cathedral collapsing through the roof, and while the flames have been extinguished, the cause and damage of the fire are yet to be determined.
The cardinal described the cathedral, which like all churches in France belongs to the state, as a “living creature where liturgy is celebrated, where faith meetings occur, and where even non-believers enter to take part in an itinerary of beauty.”
The story of Notre Dame, the cardinal and scholar added, has been far from linear. Completed in 1345, the cathedral that represents the height of the Gothic style underwent numerous reconstructions and restorations. Even its spire, made of wood and lead, was rebuilt in the 18th century.
“Its history, in reality, is that of a person who, throughout his life, encountered suffering, wounds, and sometimes seemed to be at the edge of death,” Ravasi said, “but always was reborn and lives again.”
As the Catholic community worldwide inches closer to its most important celebration of the year, the resurrection of Christ on Easter, the image that the cardinal offered is poignant.
“There is this constant living though diverse architectural interventions, and sometimes though radical restorations,” Ravasi added. “There is a continued presence of faith that attempts in every way to resurrect a symbol in art.”
Like Pope Francis wrote in a telegram to the diocese of Paris April 16, Ravasi acknowledged that while the cathedral is a powerful symbol for Catholics it also represented the “beating heart” of the city and attracted many non-believers.
The beauty of Notre Dame’s architecture, he said, leads to a “spiritual, secret dimension and a sense of transcendence that even the non-believer feels.”
The Archbishop of France, Michel Aupetit, will be celebrating the Chrism Mass on Thursday, one of the most important Catholic liturgical celebrations, at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in downtown Paris. On March 17 Saint-Sulpice also caught fire, but firemen were able to bring the blaze under control and no one was hurt.
Asked by reporters whether the Vatican will lend its support for the reconstruction of the cathedral, the cardinal said that France is economically “self-sufficient” and that the entrance fee for Notre Dame was intended “as a fund for eventual situations and restorations.”
“The Holy See will be able to contribute, especially from a technical standpoint, because in this field we are recognized for our high-quality competence,” he said, adding that “a future offer” will have to be born from a dialogue among the involved parties.
Ravasi’s remarks took place at a press conference presenting the first-ever Vatican pavilion at the International Exposition of Horticulture set to take place in Beijing, China, from April 28 to Oct. 7 with the theme “Live Green. Live Better.”
This initiative, “which at first glance may seem alien to our interests,” the cardinal said, embodies two symbols that are close to the heart of the Catholic Church and Francis’s pontificate. The first is the pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the care of creation and the environment, while the second is the fact that almost 80 percent of the Vatican State is covered in monuments, museums and gardens.
“Our pavilion is among the least expensive and most beautiful,” said Ravasi, who was put in charge of the Vatican exposition. The costs for the construction of the more than 2,000 square foot pavilion amount to $1 million and benefitted from the support of the Netherlands, which sent flowers and resources.
Within the Vatican exposition, visitors will find documents from the Apostolic Library detailing the properties of medicinal herbs as well as statues and fountains. An interactive recreation of Peter Wenzel’s massive painting “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” kept at the Vatican Museums, will also be presented.
Out of five options, the Vatican chose the sub-theme “A Home of Hearts,” because according to Father Tomasz Trafny, vice-commissioner of the pavilion, “we recognize ourselves in this dimension, not just as a state but also as a church, as a reality that finally creates a home for many hearts.”
Ravasi acknowledged the challenges that occurred in attempting to stage an exposition so far from Rome, and in a country that shares no official diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
“I’m also trying to really understand how the next step in this dialogue will occur,” he said. “This exclusively cultural dimension will probably have the purpose of creating an atmosphere of dialogue.”
Ravasi and the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Father Paul Tighe, will visit Beijing on April 29 and meet with state and culture representatives.
“I don’t know what authorities I will meet, but we will surely have a chance to dialogue more about possibilities for encounter,” he said.