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Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That can be dangerous

For more than a century, Western diplomats and scholars were sure of one thing -- that religion's role in world affairs would decline as humanity evolved toward a future rooted in logic and science.

 Those who didn't accept this vision were considered naive, irrational or perhaps even dangerous.

 The problem? There is little evidence that this secularization theory is true. In fact, it has become increasingly obvious that journalists and diplomats must pay more attention to religious traditions and practices if they want to understand many of the conflicts shaping and shaking our world, argued historian John Wolffe of the Open University in England.

 "Precisely because mainstream Western society is predominantly secular, a positive effort needs to be made to enable those who do not have a religious faith to have a better understanding both of the significant minorities in the West itself who have a religious commitment and of a continuing, and arguably growing, influence of religion in much of the rest of the world," he said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and Lapido Media.

 To be blunt, he said, confusion about the role that religion plays in the real world is dangerous. But how will religious believers and unbelievers learn to understand each other if journalists don't learn to cover religion accurately and fairly?