Benedict, Notre Dame, and the God who is love
Notre dame de Paris came to me long before I came to her.
A friend of mine had been sent to Europe for training related to his work in computers. When he asked me if I wanted him to bring me anything from France, which he intended to visit, I told him that I would be happy with a small souvenir of Notre Dame.
He was initially confused. A miniature cathedral would have been expensive. I clarified that the figurine I was referring to was of course not of the church but of the woman, Our Lady of Paris to whom the church was dedicated.
He did find a figurine, not more than five inches tall, which he brought to me when I came home. The image has accompanied me in many of my travels, an assurance of the constant blessing of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ-child whom she carries in her arms.
The original statue has survived the fire that hit the church last Monday, April 15. Made of stone, theÂ 1.8 meter statue was carved in late Gothic style in the 14th century. The Blessed Mother carries the baby Jesus on her left arm and a flower on her right.
According to researchers from the University of Calgary, the crown on the Virgin’s head and the orb in her Son’s hand project them as royalty. The face of the Christ is not of an infant but of an adult, although his mannerisms are child-like. I suppose this is to remind devotees that the God who became a human being is — to borrow Saint Augustine’s expression — ever ancient and ever new, the almighty Savior of the World or Salvador Mundi, as is underlined by the ball that He holds.
Those who saw Walt Disney’s animated production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” would have seen the cartoon version of this statue in the part of the movie when the gypsy Esmeralda sings the theme song “God Help the Outcast.” To me, the most poignant lines from that song were: “I ask for nothing/ I can get by/ But I know so many/ Less lucky than I/ Please help my people/ The poor and downtrod/ I thought we all were/ Children of God.”
Esmeralda sang these lines after other characters had sung their petitions for wealth, fame, glory, and love. In contrast to these supplicants, she intercedes for her people, the gypsies, for persons like Quasimodo, and for ll the world’s outcasts who were left without love at the margins of society, treated with scorn by the so-called respectable people.
Esmeralda addresses song’s opening verse to the Christ. She seeks to identify with him who was himself rejected by his own people: “I don’t know if you can hear me/ Or if you’re even there/ I don’t know if you will listen to a gypsy’s prayer/ Yes, I know I’m just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you/ Still, I see your face and wonder: Were you once an outcast too?”
Writing for “The Movie Report in 1996,” Michael Dequina acclaimed the song as “the most spiritual and transendent [sic] tune to emerge from an animated feature.” The song is an appropriate track for this week, when we remember the passion and death of the Christ, whom Saint John the Evangelist described as the light who came to his own, but his own did not accept him.
This popular alienation of God continues today. I took sad notice of the incapability (refusal?) of many journalists and commentators to mention God as they reported about former pope Benedict XVI’s recent essay about the Catholic Church and the crisis of sexual abuse.
Several reports describe the pope emeritus as having blamed the liberalism in the 1960s for the crisis. At least one report tried to be more comprehensive and stated that the pope just mentioned the sexual revolution of that decade as one of many reasons behind the scandals. But there was so much more in the essay that went unreported or underreported.
Meanwhile, a chorus of commentators have been alternately panning and assailing the ex-pontiff in the essay’s aftermath. Writers and editors at the National Catholic Reporter described him as “out of touch” and raised the vision of his death, saying that the essay should have been published posthumously. A conservative journalist at the Catholic World Report implied that Father Benedict was better off remaining in the silence of prayer and seclusion of the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery. Liberal theologians fomented intrigue, questioning the implications of just one essay by the former pope on the ministry of the current one.
Beyond the inadequate reportage and the discourse consisting of many a red herring and argumentum ad hominem, Father Benedict’s essay is self-justifying. Its content shows how in touch he is with the scandal, being able to clearly expose its spiritual roots. His words demonstrate currency and a sense of urgency, offering solutions that should be employed now, not later. This paternal writing reminds us why no less than Pope Francis, on several occasions, revealed that he invited Father Benedict to continued participation in the life of the Church, as someone whom he looked up to as a wise grandfather.
As long as the spiritual message of the essay goes unmentioned, I do not think any report or commentary about it does justice. This is why the Catholic faithful should read “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse” for themselves instead of being content with news reports and digests or with commentaries about it. Without reading the full text of the essay, I am afraid such precious pearls as Father Benedict’s teachings on martyrdom, God in the public square, genuine reverence for the presence of God himself in the Holy Eucharist, the ultimate sovereignty of God even though evil may work for a time, and the continuity of God’s work in holy people will be trod underfoot by those who behave like proverbial swine.
It was Advent 2015 when I first entered Notre Dame de Paris. I cannot forget the beautiful Nativity tableau that had been set to the western side of the sanctuary. The artwork reflected the beauty of the lights filtered by the cathedral’s stained glass. The intricate work was a fitting house for the image of the Child that would be placed in the manger. The artists, I believe, were motivated by love of the Baby Jesus, a love that He himself sparked.
If our discourse on the scandals is not fired by love, the love that is of the God whose martyrdom began the moment He was conceived in the womb of Our Lady, we will only stoke destructive fires eating up the Church instead of beautifying our hearts and making them a welcoming manger – like that Nativity scene in the Notre Dame, like the heart of Esmeralda – or the only One who can heal members of the Church of the sickness of sin, that familiar-sounding antonym to love.
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