Notre Dame as Cultural Moment


Convivium, 25 April 2019

The burning of Notre Dame de Paris sparked an inferno of journalistic ignorance about Christianity, writes Father Raymond de Souza.

It is a longstanding practise for editors to commission religious stories during Holy Week. Back when Time magazine was still publishing – perhaps it still is? – Easter would be marked with the annual cover story excitedly reporting that Jesus never existed, or that His tomb had recently been found in Djibouti, or both.

This year, it was not necessary to run contrived religious stories for Holy Week; the inferno at Notre Dame de Paris provided legitimate grounds for religion news aplenty. It seems ages ago now, but it was only 10 days. Not enough time to put such a monumental catastrophe into perspective, but time enough for some early thoughts.

Amongst Notre Dame’s various gargoyles and grotesqueries, I wonder if there are any crow’s ears. Back in 2005, when St. John Paul II died, Ian Fisher of The New York Times described the late pontiff as “laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows. Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

A bishop’s staff is called a “crozier” or, if you prefer the British spelling, a “crosier.” If you are a New York Times reporter covering the Vatican, you don’t know such things, and tell your readers that the Successor of Peter carries a “crow’s ear” in the manner of a pagan shaman.

The crack team at the Times was at it again last week, displaying their vast ignorance of that obscure religious sect known as Catholicism. It reported on the heroic fire chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, who raced into the burning cathedral – the “waterfalls of fire” from the roof looked to him like a vision of hell – to rescue the two most precious things in Notre Dame, the reserved Eucharist and the relic of the crown of thorns.

Catholics often refer to the Eucharist as the Blessed Sacrament. Christians of various traditions are accustomed to referring to the Eucharist as the Body of Christ, particularly when receiving Holy Communion. The Times reporter heard “Body of Christ,” and wrote up the story that the chaplain had rescued a “Statue of Jesus” from the flames, and “blessed” the cathedral with it before he ran out. It was a moving story of courage and faith, but puzzled readers wondered what exactly a chaplain was doing carrying out an unwieldly statue, let alone managing to bless the cathedral with it.

The correction came soon enough as hoots of laughter went up on social media. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue, that the chaplain rushed into save, as any priest should do if he had the chance.

The Times does not “get religion.” Its executive editor confessed as much in 2016. So it makes mistakes about the Eucharist, the holiest of holies. The New York Post helpfully compiled a list of religious howlers at the Times, including describing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the place where “many Christians believe Jesus is buried.” A Christian who believes that Jesus is buried anywhere is not a Christian.

Of course the Times was not alone. The Associated Press ran a story headlined “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as a place of worship”. In fairness, the story did not make the mistake of the headline, but still did employ the odd formulation “tourist mecca”. The one thing Mecca is not is a tourist destination. Pilgrims only in Mecca. Non-Muslims are forbidden, and subject to flogging if discovered there. Not a “tourist mecca” at all.

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