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The Meaning of Cathedrals

Beauty Is Man’s Great Need

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“Beauty is man’s great need; it is the root from which the trunk arises of our peace and the fruits of our hope. Beauty is also a revealer of God because, like Him, a beautiful work is pure gratuitousness; it invites to freedom and does away with egoism,” writes Archbishop Francesco Follo.

The Holy See’s Permanent Observer at UNESCO in Paris offers this reflection on the meaning of Cathedrals, a few days after the fire at Nantes’ Cathedral.

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After the fire at Nantes’ Cathedral, which happened on July 18, 2020, many commentaries were made and written. Allow me to propose a contribution, which intends to recall some elements that have not always been made explicit, on the importance and value of a Church, an edifice that is built and left at the center of a city or village.

I’m inspired by two verses of T.S. Eliot, who wrote in “The Rock”: “What life is your life if it isn’t common; there is no common life without praise to God,” and “there are no homes without Churches.”

In the Acts of the Martyrdom of Saint Justin and his Companion, one reads: “The Prefect Rusticus asked again: “Where do you meet?” Justin replied: “Wherever one can and prefers; you think that we all meet in the same place, but it’s not so as the God of Christians, who is invisible, can’t be circumscribed in any place, but He fills Heaven and earth and He is venerated and glorified wherever the faithful are.” In his reply, Saint Justin repeated before the Judge what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “Woman, believe me: the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him.” (John 21-24).

When one speaks of the “Church”, which is — as the Bible says — Gate of Heaven and House of God, as Lanspergius the Chartreux wrote (1489-1539), one speaks of three Houses.

“The first <House of God>  is the material sanctuary. One certainly can pray anywhere and there is nowhere where one can’t pray. However, it’s right to have consecrated to God a particular place where all of us, Christians, can come together, to praise and pray to God together, and to obtain more easily what we ask for, thanks to this common prayer.

The second House of God is the people, the holy community that finds its unity in this Church, namely, we who are guided, instructed, and nourished by the Church’s Pastors. It’s the spiritual dwelling of God of which our Church, material House of God, is the sign. Christ built this spiritual time for Himself.

This dwelling is made up of God’s elect, past, present and future, gathered in the unity of the faith and of charity, in this Church, one, daughter of the universal Church, one alone with the universal Church. Considered apart by the other particular Churches, it is a part of the Church, as are all the other Churches, which together form the universal Church, Mother of all the Churches.

The third House of God is every holy soul given to God, consecrated through Baptism, become a temple of the Holy Spirit, and God’s dwelling. Keeping this present, let us remember the gift received from God when He chose us to come and dwell in us by His grace.”

Now a brief final reflection on the cultural dimension of the House of God, in particular when it’s about masterpieces such as the French Cathedrals, among which two have been harshly touched by fire: Notre Dame of Paris and Saints Peter and Paul in Nantes.

In the heart of these two cities, as in the heart of numerous other cities of the world, under God’s gaze and that of men, in a humble and joyful act of faith, we have raised a great quantity of materials, fruits of nature and of an incalculable effort and of human intelligence, builder of this work of art. These Cathedrals are a visible sign of the invisible God, to the glory of Whom these towers are launched, these arrows that indicate the absolute of light and of Him who is the Light, the Height, and Beauty themselves.

The architects gave “form” to the people’s faith being inspired by three great books on which they nourished themselves as men, as believers and as architects: the Book of Nature, the Book of Holy Scripture, and the Book of the Liturgy. They thus joined the reality of the word and the history of salvation, as it is recounted in the Bible and made present in the Liturgy.

They introduced in their buildings sacred stones and human life, so that that the whole of creation converges in the divine praise.

Thus they collaborated brilliantly in the building of a human conscience anchored in the world, open to God, enlightened and sanctified by Christ. And they carried out what today is one of the most important duties: to overcome the scission between human conscience and human conscience, between existence in this temporal world and opening to the spiritual life, between the beauty of things and God as Beauty. The architects of Cathedrals did not do all this by words, but by stones, lines, surfaces, and summits. In reality, beauty is man’s great need; it is the root from which the trunk arises of our peace and the fruits of our hope. Beauty is also a revealer of God because, like Him, a beautiful work is pure gratuitousness; it invites to freedom and does away with egoism.

Certainly, these places — which are a sacred space for God, who revealed Himself and gave Himself to us in Christ to be definitively God with men –, have a cultural value of which all, believers and non-believers, have the right to benefit from, because as Aristotle already said (384-322 B.C. ”Beauty is the splendor of truth,” and beauty unites. The splendor of the truth in all its beauty is of fundamental importance in human life and must be proposed so that everyone can have the experience of truth through beauty, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus already said (second half of the 6th century B.C.): “You will never find the Truth if you are not willing to accept also what you do not expect.”

{Translation by ZENIT}

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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