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Notre-Dame Cathedral is seen April 18, 2019, after a massive fire devastated large parts of the Catholic Gothic structure in Paris three days earlier. Architect Donald MacDonald said cathedrals are “in danger of becoming museums without a soul.” CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

Church is given a design wake-up call

  • February 1, 2020

OTTAWA -- When flames ripped through one of the world’s most famous Catholic churches in Paris, France, on April 15, 2019, the world — not just Catholics — mourned the damage done to one of Western civilization’s most iconic structures.

The fire’s destruction put the future of Notre-Dame Cathedral at risk, and the reaction from not just Catholics but people of faith across the globe and even non-believers in the wake of the damage done to one of the world’s most beautiful man-made structures renewed an ongoing debate about what is “beauty” and how the idea of beauty is linked to how people of faith express and experience that faith in their places of worship.

For retired Ottawa-based architect Donald MacDonald, the fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral was a wakeup call to the increasing secularization of society that has had a profound impact on Catholic churches — in what they look like, how they function and the continuing decline in church attendance in western society.

“To me, the near destruction of the great cathedral built in Our Lady’s honour has now served as a Marian warning of our society’s almost total lack of faith,” MacDonald said during a discussion at St. Patrick Basilica in Ottawa, called “Catholic Architecture: Beauty where God’s glory dwells.”

MacDonald said that idea is echoed by the words of Cardinal Robert Sarah, who said at a conference after the tragedy: “What is this fire? It is our loss of faith and the spirit of faith, a losing sight of the objectivity of faith and thus a loss of the knowledge of God,” he said.

“The great cathedrals of the West could have been built only by men of great faith and great humility who were profoundly happy to know that they were sons of God. Today they are in danger of becoming museums without a soul. A cathedral no longer makes sense if the liturgy we celebrate there is not entirely meant to orient us toward God, toward the cross.”

MacDonald, who is an active member of the Catholic Church in Ottawa, said while the Church does not have a set “style” of what churches must look like, that doesn’t mean that all design and function styles are equal when it comes to how a church should function as a gateway to the beauty that is a relationship with God.

“The history of Western church architecture shows the acceptance of many styles and building techniques,” MacDonald said. “Like most things, not having one official style does not mean that some styles are not more conducive for the sacramental and worship functions of a church building.”

The debate over what a church, in this case what a Catholic church, should look like, has been an ongoing debate for decades if not centuries.

There are some writers who argue that what they call “ugly” modern churches is actually one of the reasons for the continuing decline in church attendance, especially in North America and Europe.

In his 2001 book Ugly as Sin, writer Michael S. Rose argued that some modern Catholic churches are so “ugly” that they actually drive the faithful away from the Church.

Even in France, which historically is a Catholic country but operates as a strictly secular nation, a 2017 study by Bayard Presse found that only five per cent of the population in France attends Mass on a regular basis.

And even though French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged that Notre-Dame would be restored by 2024, the low percentage of French Catholics who engage with the Catholic Church on a regular basis does point to a general disengagement from the Church.

Here in Canada this is not just an issue that affects the Catholic Church, but is being felt across the country in most Christian denominations. The National Trust for Canada in 2019 estimated that upwards of 9,000 religious spaces will close in Canada because of declining attendance or disrepair to the facilities.

(NOTE: This story has been changed to correct the attribution of a quote, which was originally made in a speech by Cardinal Robert Sarah.)

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