Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Dennis McNallyMay 23, 2011

When I first visited it, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was bathed in sunset. It was the festival of St. Michel during the summer of 1978, and symphony orchestras played under massive tents throughout the plazas of Paris. A Jesuit friend, Joe Devlin, and I walked through the city dumbstruck.

The cathedral doors were open; organ music beckoned and Mass was about to begin. It was one of those miracles that thrill the faithful, when a concatenation of unexpected events makes one realize, “God is here.” The statue of Notre Dame de Paris shone serene. We sat opposite her in the north pseudotransept (near where Napoleon was crowned emperor), across from the south rose window, which, bathed by the sun, glowed in ruby, sapphire, amber and ultramarine colors.

The two priests began the liturgy, a dark-haired junior and a white-maned senior celebrant. The younger priest welcomed the congregation in French, English, Italian and German. We were about to pray in the center of the European Catholic universe.

There was one large altar, which looked like a refectory table, covered in brocade; one ambo; one presidential seat with two side seats; and one candle counterpoised, in the French manner, by a bouquet of flowers on the altar. The elder priest moved with majestic reverence. An elegant, sophisticated simplicity soothed us. This physical centering of the sanctuary at the church’s main crossing, in accord with the sensibilities of the Second Vatican Council, exemplified what Mircea Eliade, the theorist of comparative religion, called the “cosmic pillar,” a vertical connection at the “cosmic center.” The liturgical moment, Eliade’s illud tempus, the historical moment of God’s manifestation among us, had been moved from the distant, eastern end of the oriented chancel and placed in the midst of the church under the pinnacle of la flèche, the crossing turret.

At the recessional, the organist played a composition by Gabriel Fauré, with all the stops pulled. The music pushed me almost beyond my tolerance for beauty. “Oh God,” I prayed, sliding off my chair, “please let the music stop or I will die here.” Joe thought I might be having a heart attack.

Later, it was easy to imagine Henri, King of Navarre, attending such a liturgy, thinking he could endure becoming a Catholic, marry Marie de Medici and hold broader political sway within his grasp. Through marriage and conversion, he relinquished his Huguenot heritage to capture the Catholic crown of France. For Henri IV, Paris was, as he said, “worth a Mass.”

For me, a life in art is worth that experience, for that Mass became the primary aesthetic experience of my life, to be reclaimed, I hoped, on my next visit 13 years later.

The Paradigm Shifts

Seeking a similar experience, I visited Notre Dame again in 1991. But the world, it seems, had changed. Intolerance had been reignited in Paris and outsiders—foreigners—were suspect. Yet the French capital was also the seat of a culturally significant archbishop, the Jewish-born Jean-Marie Lustiger, who enjoyed a reputation for intelligent accommodation. The community I found in that earlier visit should still have been alive in Notre Dame. But the sun was not out; it was March, not springtime; my feet were wet and cold. I felt in my bones that things were different but not better.

I sat alone in the south transept. Foreigners like me, once warmly welcomed, seemed merely tolerated. Whereas formerly differences seemed to create a universal community, now even the locals seemed to be intruders. No polyglot priest spoke.

The aisles and chairs were also confused; nobody had bothered to straighten up after an earlier Mass. Many candles burned near the famous statue of Our Lady. A new, faceless group of bronze statues on the northeast pier was mirrored by similarly faceless bronze figures placed on the four sides of the bronze, cube-shaped altar. I was disappointed by the replacement of the Louis XIV “refectory-table” altar with a sort of cubic jewelry box. This altar bespoke the jewels of state or the relics of church; it was not a table on which would be placed the food of angels.

There were other disappointments: not one pulpit but two, not one presidential seat but a number of Louis XVI chairs scattered about, some with backs, some without, standing near the edge of the sanctuary. They formed a virtual barrier, a subtle reminder to the faithful to keep their place outside the holy space reserved for clerics. There were many candles on the altar itself and a tall, clumsy round table with tall votive candles in front; a large floral arrangement accompanied it, and there was another, dissimilar floral arrangement in the sanctuary. Holy in function, the sanctuary had no aesthetic appeal, at least to me. The lack of care was painful.

When the liturgy began, there was little sense of a procession; a milling crowd arrived in the sanctuary, with the museum (as it is, technically) and the museum shop still open. The acolytes who rigidly swung thuribles were officiously directive at Communion time.

One had a sense that the eucharistic liturgy went on ex opere operato in the extreme, the miracle taking place no matter what the participants did. The Latin term means that the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the ritual purity of the priest. It also means, by extension, that if the ritual is enacted sloppily, if there is little attention to aesthetic detail, the ritual is still valid. Nonetheless, the ritual did not feel as “real” to me as the earlier experience had.

What seemed to be a self-absorbed, uninvolved congregation surrounded a strict performance of rubrics. But the strictness so evident in the ministers distanced them from the rest of us. The boisterous tourists milling in the aisles became a distraction. The clergy, concerned with the efficient completion of liturgical ritual, seemed unaware of the clutter in the sanctuary. No one paid attention to welcoming the worshipers.

In my experience, it was the nadir of liturgical worship.

The Power of the Paradigm

The difference between these two experiences in the same cathedral rested on arrangements of the sanctuary and the attention of those in the sanctuary. The paradigmatic “altar as treasure chest” at the center of a self-absorbed drama and the attendants’ actions seemed designed to protect a clerical treasure more than to celebrate an agape meal; it spoke to me of preserving Christendom more than of presenting Christ.

The archetypes of Eucharist have shifted: from early Christian table to a medieval tomb; later to a Gothic monstrance; then to a Renaissance or Baroque throne; then in the wake of Vatican II to a restored table; and then to a safe, a treasure chest, a jewel box. The shifting paradigm signals shifts in the mind of the church.

In an article in Commonweal in 2002, entitled “The Liturgy as Battlefield: What do ‘Restorationists’ Want?” Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., described restorationists as those who think “modern culture is incapable of bearing the transcendent.” Quoting the church historian Eamon Duffy, the archbishop wrote that restorationists are “doomed to eccentricity.” In the archbishop’s understanding of the recent documents from the Vatican about liturgical practice, the term “sanctuary” has been replaced by presbyterium. This is tantamount to a paradigm change wherein the term for the “holy of holies” is supplanted by one suggesting the place of the priests. Weakland implies that the weakness in the “reform of the reform” is that it takes no account of the laity, neither of their place nor of their role in the church.

Many significant spiritual gifts were bestowed on the church through the Second Vatican Council: a problematic openness, yes, to experimentation and to the presider’s personality unduly affecting the congregation; but also a new openness to modern music and art that still challenges the church. These problems are not insurmountable. As seemed clear to the council fathers at the time, these problems would be dealt with and solved by the people of God coming together.

The declarations of a council bear more weight than the aesthetic proclivities of a cathedral staff. To me, the cathedral’s staff appeared unaware of the power of the paradigm to form an ecclesial consciousness. The altar in such an important church as the cathedral of Paris can influence a whole continent’s approach to the Eucharist. Insensitivity to devotional needs can turn a rich ritual into an impoverished performance. Too much regard for treasure can tarnish or even bury it.

Other cathedrals around the world have struck a much healthier balance among the essential liturgical furnishings. A beautiful example is the recently restored Carolingian cathedral of Laôn in northern France. The Romanesque Revival Cathedral of St. Joseph in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the modernist Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles show that different historical settings can house the table, ambo, presidential seat and nave in profoundly diverse architectural environments; while the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe in old-town Albuquerque, N.M., shows that aesthetic care of the principles fits a space of any size.

Full, active and conscious participation occurs in space; the space matters.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Camille Devaney
13 years 1 month ago
I can't speak to the look of the sanctuary but wish to share my experience in the same Cathedral in very recent years. The last 10 years before retiring I worked primarily in Europe with the last few in France mainly in Normandy. However I spent many w/e's in Paris. I worked in many/most countries but attending Mass was a very cold and uninvolved experience and not just because I didn't speak the language. The liturgy centered around the clergy, no processional or recessional, cold and unwelcoming and in the pews very few people, mostly woman and elderly and I am not young. Oddly enough for me France, in the old old church in my little town of L'Aigle and at ND Cathedral were the only places in my 10 year experience where I saw a recessional and processional. The celebrant actual smiled and spoke to the congregation as they exited the church. In my small town of L'Aigle where being the only "Yank" present Sunday or weekday liturgy he actually made an effort to introduce me to the local congregation. I was pleasantly surprised.
13 years 1 month ago
Thank you.

I hope your students appreciate your vision of liturgy well-enjoined.
David Smith
13 years 1 month ago

A problem with modern, at least in modern times, is that it never stops changing and it never settles down.  Almost by definition, free, undirected change is going produce a very high ratio of bad to good, of unsuccessful to successful.  In the past, when things moved constantly toward the center and then outward again from the center, being filtered all along the way, much of the bad was likely left behind in the funneling and filtering.  Now, there is no center, and so there is no funneling and filtering.  A church built in Fargo has no connection with one built in Brooklyn or Toronto or Lima or Rome.  The modern world is highly and hopelessly individualistic, and so is the Church.  Progress, in the sense of purification, is absent; all we have is change without end.  And that means, inevitably, a constant unmediated outpouring of mediocrity.

It also means, in the Church today, it seems, a constant flow of dictatorial liturgists and other hierarchical watchdogs, determined that theory will carry the day over aesthetics.  Or, to put it another way, it guarantees that aesthetics will always serve theory.  That seems to me a particularly unhealthy form of Puritanism.

Why come down so hard on the "Restorationists"?  They're just responding to the ugliness you experienced in Paris.  They didn't cause it - there is no conspiracy.  The Council seemed such a wonderful thing at the time, but it's probably had more than its share of unintended consequences.  Everything does.  Think about the likelihood that those consequences are equally or more the cause of the unpleasant parochialism you saw.  For example, think how vernacularization can lead to fragmentation.  Think how a too-heavy emphasis on liturgical form can distort and uglify art - or even make unideologized art impossible.  There are no doubt a lot more unintended consequences to be found.  Stop blaming the Same Old Suspects.  Climb outside that box and look around.
13 years 1 month ago

Liturgies do have their ups and downs. I was in Paris a few weeks later in 1991, during Holy Week, and I attended the triduum liturgies at Notre Dame. I found them to be profoundly moving; Cardinal Lustiger's obvious charisma helped, but they were solemn, emotional and prayerful experiences for the multitude-a largely touristic multitude, to be sure.

Insofar as restorationists are being nostalgic (and I think, for the most part, they often are), they are fantasists. This doesn't mean we don't need to do a lot of work to make better liturgies, better worship experiences. Ecclesia semper reformanda, I like to think...

Edward Visel
13 years ago

Notre Dame has been largely sacrificed to the tourists, as one of their stops along the Tour Eiffel - Champs Elysee - Musee du Louvre axis. To find the soul of Catholicism in France, you've got to go to the smaller, more inconsequential churches of Paris and the countryside. And they are cold, and mostly impersonal, but can sometimes surprise you with a burst of communal spirit, like a reception with mulled wine outside a tiny (6 people across!) church in Picardie after the Easter Vigil.

Notre Dame is now more of a ceremonial space, where grand events can take place, but without a real quotidien life that gives a place a soul. It's not so unlike St. Peter's, in that regard. They are both grand, important spaces, but they are only as valuable as the community they serve. Sometimes, that's a multitude; more usually, it's an ever-changing group of tourists.

The latest from america

In this episode of “Inside the Vatican,” hosts Colleen Dulle and Gerard O’Connell bring you inside the G7 summit and Pope Francis' meeting with comedians.
Inside the VaticanJune 20, 2024
A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinJune 20, 2024
Pope Francis and a nine member Council of Cardinals heard presentations from women experts on the role of women in the church through the lens of canon law.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to prayerfully discern the individual contribution we can make. Guided by our faith and Catholic social teaching, we can do our part to support a just peace in Israel-Palestine.