The Cathedral is Not the Church

by Rose Marie Berger


The Notre Dame Cathedral reflected in the sunglasses of a Parisian.

Less than a day after fire destroyed much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, donations have flooded in to fund the rebuilding of the iconic 850-year-old church and world treasure — including nearly $1 billion just from a handful of France’s financial elites and corporations.

As flames consumed 900-year-old oak latticework on Monday, Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris fire brigade, ran into the church to rescue the Blessed Sacrament held in reserve in the tabernacle. Along with others, he formed a human chain to rescue priceless works of art, including the crown of thorns believed to be worn by Jesus.

In our Holy Week pilgrimage to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, we can meditate on his crown of thorns and the sacred Eucharist redeemed from ashes.

But we must also look deeper. The magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is indeed a monument of living praise in stone, glass, and wood. It sits on the birthplace of Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It rises as a work of art built by human hands to the greater glory of God.

But, glorious as it is, the cathedral is not the church.

The church is not the architecture, artwork, artifacts, or sacred objects. 

The church is the living body of Christ found in the wounded, migrant, friendless, and exhausted who live on the streets of Paris. That is the church that Our Lady, Notre Dame, folds into her cloak.

Only in reaching out to these abandoned ones do we rescue what is most sacred. Only in rebuilding this incarnate church can Notre Dame be restored.

To rebuild Notre Dame requires reweaving France’s communal heart and making a human chain to rescue those lost and left behind.

To rebuild Notre Dame calls for a social and spiritual project that even the most secular French can support.


Makeshift refugee camp near the Stalingrad metro station in Paris, France.

Can the wealthy of the world support a Notre Dame project that starts in each French neighborhood, each European neighborhood, each American neighborhood? Can each neighborhood commit to providing housing, healthcare, and friendship to migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers living on the streets, living under threat of legal persecution?

Remember, the church is not the building.

For each dollar donated to raise Notre Dame once again, let 2 dollars be donated to bring the body of Christ into a loving family. 

The new Notre Dame must be both an architectural project and a social process that sparks love for the “other,” treasuring the gifts of the other in our hearts, as Our Lady did (Luke 2:19).

The new Notre Dame – both project and process – must make it easier for the overfed to have a meal with the underfed, for the stressed and overpaid to rest with the exhausted and overworked, for the children of wealth and the children of poverty to plant vegetables together and play in a fountain and fly kites. The new Notre Dame must have open green spaces where the Earth and Creation can sprout forth.

Remember, the church is not the building. 

The church is the people of God – believers and nonbelievers, French and foreign, housed and homeless, artisans and CEOs – working together to rebuild France’s communal life.

We will know that Notre Dame is rebuilt when there is housing for the more than 16,000 people, primarily war and economic refugees, living in 497 informal settlements in France. One third of whom are located in Greater Paris.

Out of these ashes a new magnificent cathedral can be built that truly reflects the glory of God.–Rose Marie Berger

Rose Marie Berger, author of Bending the Arch: Poems, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.