Paul Paiva writes, blogs, officiates at weddings, and teaches the Enneagram.
He is a former Roman Catholic priest who embraces an eclectic spirituality.


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Holy Thursday 2019

Why are people, even non-Catholics, drawn to walk into and gaze around in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, or Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris?


It is because of the vastness of the architecture, the beauty and attention to detail of the pictures, murals, side-altars, chapels, sculptures, choir stalls, the organ, the nave, tapestries, stained-glass windows, and the sanctuary, all invoking a deep feeling of awe.  The awesomeness, omnipresence, mercy, love, and grandeur of God is palpable. 


In a country where only 5% attend Sunday mass1, a huge portion of the population, even outside France, cares about this quintessentially Catholic architectural marvel known as Notre Dame Cathedral that caught fire this week.


Cathedral comes from the Latin word for chair, so a cathedral is the seat or throne of the bishop.  It is the place where a bishop makes official pronouncements.  Construction of Notre Dame was begun by Pope Alexander III in 1163, taking two decades to complete. 


Notre Dame means Our Lady in French, a veneration of the mother of Jesus and the preeminent role she played in his life. 


The Catholic roots of France go back to Constantine the Great in the fourth century.  Various events in Constantine’s life led him along a faith journey, including when he and his army saw a vision of a cross while leading his army to battle.  During his reign, in 313 CE, it was no longer illegal to be a Christian in the Holy Roman Empire.


In 800 CE, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire2, a church-state pact that ensured the presence of many French Catholics for centuries to come. 


Ex-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics may have ebbing faith in the integrity of the institutional Catholic Church.  But they may still have deep faith for the teachings and personhood of Jesus, even though they may have migrated to other Christian denominations, Buddhism, or professing to be “spiritual.”


This week’s widespread demonstration of tenderness towards Notre Dame Cathedral indicates that although throngs may have abandoned their faith in the integrity of an institutional organization and its many flawed leaders, the power of the resurrection of Jesus still lives in the hearts and souls of many.


Jesus came to teach us a message.  It was not to build golden church domes.  It was not to wield mighty ornate croziers, nor to wear tall miters that cast shadows of hubris, nor to wear a piscatory ring that beckons to be kissed.  It was not to create a regalia of scarlet garments nor a club of men wearing crimson zucchettos ostentatiously signifying the desire to die for one’s faith. 

He came to a poor family, spent the first days of his life sleeping in a horse feeding trough, and was murdered on a cross.  On this day, Maundy Thursday, the day known for when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Priesthood, he taught his first class of ordinands to wash one another’s feet.  He taught them that to lead, you must be the servant of all. 

In this era where the servant-model of leadership is often eclipsed in the Catholic Church, it is encouraging that the true teachings of Jesus do remain in the hearts of the faithful. 

A natural disaster like a flood or fire can bind communities of people who previously were divided by various prejudices of race, creed, and politics.  I take heart that the outpouring of emotion at the collapse of the Notre Dame Cathedral indicates that faith can still thrive in the populous, even with a grossly imperfect organization.  This week, ex-Catholics, non-practicing Catholics, Christians of all denominations, and all spiritual people are reminded of their enduring profound faith.


I was born and raised Catholic.  It has been years since I attended Catholic Sunday mass.  I’m proud to be a post-denominational Christian, one who doesn't require a building or an organization to validate or nurture my faith. Although I do appreciate the support of a loving and faith-filled church community.

Nevertheless, I am grateful that the Catholic Church and other church organizations chose to build such lovely monuments around the world that herald the majesty of God and the creativity of human beings in their devotion to God.


1 What the Notre-Dame Fire Reveals About the Soul of France, New York Times, by Steven Erlanger.  

2 History of the Catholic Church in FranceWikipedia