On the 15th April, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France became engulfed in flames underneath the structure of the roof, leading to the collapse of the centuries-old Spire. As the Cathedral continued to burn with flames lighting up the sky, Parisians, tourists and international residents were seen gathering across the Seine River to pray and sing hymns together. It was a pivotal moment in history that pierced the national consciousness of France, a piercing that was felt in communities around the world as an iconic, international masterpiece began to fall.
For centuries, the Notre-Dame Cathedral has been the centrepiece of local and international societies; as an exemplar of French Gothic architecture, for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparate, the blessing of Joan of Arc and as the sacred meeting place for millions of Catholics around the globe. From the religious perspective of many individuals, the Notre-Dame is a Catholic icon that inspired many to engage in larger devotional lives. As one onlooker to the Cathedral’s fire described:
“It (Notre-Dame) represents our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose” (Patel and Yuhas 2019, p.1).
Even more so, the Cathedral is a symbol that reinforces how influential Christianity was in structuring Western civilization and European culture, providing it with its morality, virtues and understanding of the cosmos. Over time, the significance of Notre-Dame has expanded beyond the boundaries of France, and it now includes an international community of Catholics that admire its religious symbology in the practice of their faith. When images and reports of the burning Cathedral flashed across televisions, newspapers and social media around the world, the international Catholic community united to donate to its reconstruction.
I argue that this collective effort to save and rebuild Notre-Dame emerges from the importance of having the Cathedral as a unifying symbol of Catholic faith. Why is this so important? Well, it reinforces imaginings of an international Catholic community. This collective imagining, according to Benedict Anderson (1983), is facilitated through the distribution of cultural materials that seek to construct and represent social cohesion. The significance of these cultural materials is then reinforced by the collective imagining.
It is the cultural force of the Notre-Dame Cathedral that Anderson (1983) argues promotes the strength of the Catholic community. The Cathedral is a cultural symbol that reflects the Catholic community back to themselves, which creates a unified imagining of the religious beliefs that rule their community.
While this is an effective way of analysing the importance of Notre-Dame as an international Catholic symbol, I’m not convinced that Benedict Anderson would be too pleased with me applying his theoretical assumptions from Imagined Communities (1983) in this context. Sorry Benny, but you laid excellent theoretical groundwork here that was too good not to build upon!
In Anderson’s original text, he asserted the “imagined community” is created by our collective imagining of the spaces we inhabit – spaces that are locally and geographically bounded. He limited the scope of the imagined community to the nation. Anderson (1983) focused on how the collective identity of the nation was spread through print capitalism (newspapers, language, literature, material maps, museums and census’), which strengthened the shared culture and nationalism that reinforced the boundaries of the nation. However, this is a major flaw in Anderson’s theory. He thought that the nation (aka community) had to emerge from a “local” group that differentiated itself from other communities and societies. He further neglected to question and understand the different forms of “community” and how these were not always bounded to one place in space and time.
It pains me to limit Anderson’s analysis locally, and I think his theory is just as effective in a global framework! I, similar to other scholars, have taken inspiration from Anderson’s ideas and used them to understand the transnational context of Notre-Dame and the Catholic community. Surely Benny would be pretty impressed with how far-reaching his original theories now are!
Let’s look again to Notre-Dame. Catholics around the world saw representations of the Cathedral burning and the devastated reactions of Catholic (and non-Catholic) Parisians on television, social media and in newspapers. These representations reinforced their imagining of Notre Dame as an iconic Catholic monument, which re-stablished their collective knowing of its sacred importance to Catholics around the world. As one facebook user described:
As a result, this collective ‘knowing’ reassured them – whether they were in Brazil, the Philippines, the United States, Ireland or wherever – that they were part of an international Catholic community devastated by this destruction. And… to try and please Benny, this global community does still consist of what he required must be “outsiders” – who in this case could be viewed as people in different religious groups.
The importance of Notre-Dame to the international Catholic community is a prime example of how it is possible to be part of a community that expands beyond the borders of France, Europe and the West; a global community that is imagined across multiple cultures, identities and languages.
Anderson, B 1983, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, pp.427-449
Patel and Yuhas 2019, ‘Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral Leads to Expressions of Heartbreak Across the World’, viewed 3 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/world/europe/paris-cathedral-fire.html