Notre Dame Cathedral

Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

It has been exactly a month since a fire destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame in Paris, leaving the Catholic world — and beyond — in shock over the destruction of such an important structure in Christendom and Western Civilization.

In the days and weeks that followed, we were treated to news coverage that was exceptional to the ordinary to the downright bizarre.

The insistence, for example, of The New York Times to cover the fire as if it had occurred in a museum rather than a house of worship was strange. That cable TV news made a big fuss over wealthy French companies donating to rebuild the cathedral was also a distraction. The op-ed pieces that followed were also strange. The winner in this category: Rolling Stone on how Notre Dame should be rebuilt.

All that aside, there continues to be little to no coverage when it comes to the rash of suspicious fires and vandalism that plagued French churches in the weeks before the Paris incident, which was quickly deemed unintentional by Parisian authorities. My post, which ran while the fire still burned at Notre Dame, asked a simple question: If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story? This post went viral.

The Notre Dame fire, alas, did little to shed any light — or inspire further news coverage — into the other destructive acts reported in Catholic churches across France. That many of these incidents took place during Lent made it even more of a story, a largely ignored one.

So what’s new? I am disappointed to report that very little has changed over the course of 30 days. The Notre Dame fire, although not deemed suspicious, was a perfect opportunity to jump on a story that had been largely overlooked.

Instead, one of the best pieces since the fire came from Nina Shea — director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Shea expresses many of the same concerns I have had regarding this largely ignored trend by the U.S. press, particularly those with a global reach such as The New York Times and CNN.

Here’s what Shea noted in her May 2 post, which also ran in The National Catholic Register:

The flames that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame riveted the world because it is a legendary, architectural masterpiece at the center of France’s capital and much of its political history. For those who track religious-freedom threats, the fire itself may be less of a surprise than that it apparently was started by accident.

Hundreds of other French churches are being quietly burned or damaged — in deliberate attacks.

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Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

Why rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral could cost billions and take over a decade

The catastrophic Holy Week fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris completely destroyed the roof and center spire, although the famous facade of the centuries-old gothic house of worship was spared and remains intact, as did the lower part of the church.

As investigators continue to sift through the damage — which includes three massive holes in its vaulted ceiling — in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the inferno, French officials and architects are working to determine how much money and time it will take to restore Notre Dame to its previous glory.

“We have so much to rebuild,” French President Emmanual Macron said Tuesday in a televised speech from Paris. “We will rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral even more beautifully. We can do it, and once again, we will mobilize.”

French officials confirmed, a day after the blaze, that the stone walls of the cathedral are structurally sound. Macron vowed that the landmark church, a symbol of Paris and Roman Catholicism for the past 800 years, will be rebuilt. State officials will enact an ambitious timetable of just five years to get the project completed.

The investigation into the cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Despite a spate of vandalism at French churches over the past few months, authorities do not believe this latest incident to be arson.

How long will it take to rebuild?

French officials said an international effort would be needed to pay for the reconstruction. Although Macron said rebuilding would be completed by 2024 (with one estimate saying it could cost $8 billion), some experts said the cathedral’s full renovation could take up to 15 years.

In terms of money raised, the billionaire Pinault family has pledged $113 million, as did the French energy company Total and cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The family of Bernard Arnault, who own luxury goods group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has planned to donate $225 million. Donations are coming in from all over the world, including $100,000 from Notre Dame University.

It’s worth noting that the cathedral was not insured.

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Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.

It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.

Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.

Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?

I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.

The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:

PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.

So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.

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If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?

What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?

We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.

The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.

It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.

That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.

This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.

It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.

But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.

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What. It. All. Means. Symbolic details in a priest's death in parish named for St. Stephen

What. It. All. Means. Symbolic details in a priest's death in parish named for St. Stephen

In the aftermath of the murder of Father Jacques Hamel, there are two stories unfolding in France and, to a lesser degree, the rest of postmodern and post-Christian Europe. Let me stress that both stories are valid and deserve coverage.

One story is about the crime itself and the investigation into how it happened. At the heart of this story is the official dilemma facing the powers that be in government, which is how to stop as many terrorist acts as possible before they happen. The symbolic detail: One of the attackers -- 19-year-old Adel Kermiche -- was a known ISIS ally who was already wearing a monitoring device around his ankle.

The other story, of course, is a religion story. It is about an attack on a Catholic parish -- St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray -- named in honor of the first New Testament martyr St. Stephen, a connection I have only seen mentioned in the Catholic press. At the heart of this story is the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel, who -- during Mass -- was forced to kneel at the church altar, where the attackers slit his throat. The terrorists critically injured one nun and tried to use other nuns as human shields, before police were able to kill the attackers.

The symbolic details in this story? If you want more on that, may I suggest following two hashtags on Twitter. The first is #IAmJacquesHamel, an obvious homage to the #IAmCharlieHebdo campaign after terrorists attacked the Paris staff of the famous satire magazine. The second hashtag is #santosubito. We will come back to that.

Which of these two stories are you seeing, when you open your local newspaper or click to the 24/7 news channels on your digital screens? I would argue that you should be seeing both. Are you?

It is likely that you are seeing language similar to this, care -- once again -- of The New York Times:

France is officially secular but Catholicism is deeply embedded in the country’s culture. That has made the shock and symbolism of the killing of the Rev. Jacques Hamel all the greater.

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