One of the largest medieval buildings in Paris reopens this week as a forum for discussion about faith in the modern world after more than two centuries being used mostly as a fire station and police training centre. The Collège des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by the English Cistercian monk Stephen of Lexington as a residential college for the order’s monks. After the French Revolution, it was taken over by the city.
The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Paris bought the building and spent five years renovating it to house its theology school and host debates, conferences, art exhibitions and evenings of film and music. Its first major event will be a speech on faith and culture by Pope Benedict, who will address an audience of 700 personalities from the world of French culture on the first day of his Sept. 12-15 visit to France.
The college, whose name comes from its original designation as St. Bernard’s College, stands on the Left Bank just off the Boulevard Saint Germain. The five-year restoration highlighted the building’s simple Gothic architecture while adding modern comforts such as heating, air conditioning and WiFi (see video). The college aims “to serve mankind in all its dimensions — its emotions, its intelligence, its liberty, its relations and its faith”.
The city’s archbishop, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, told journalists during a pre-opening media tour that the Catholic Church needed to promote discussion with modern society. “Our Christian faith, our Christian tradition and wisdom are today immersed in a pluri-religious and pluri-cultural society. Despite the generous and multiple forms of religion on offer, many of our contemporaries do not belong to a specific religion, or have no religion or belief at all.” The discussions will bring together Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers, to discuss issues including culture, economics, international development and Christian-Jewish relations. Another issue will be the effects of scientific progress on society and questions of bioethics, he said. “How will human identity — what it means to be a man or a woman — be respected and promoted? Will it be reduced to the roll of a tool for the well-being of a few?
“All these questions face us. We don’t all have the same answer. We don’t always have an answer. But we are all confronted with these questions and we cannot avoid them, unless we consider human history to be a fate that mankind cannot change. That is not our conviction.”