Notre Dame brûle! (“Our Lady is burning!”) News flashes and sirens spread this horrible news Monday night at the start of Holy Week 2019. One of the most beautiful and iconic cathedrals in the world, visited by more people than any other monument in Europe or the world, was engulfed in flames during the most sacred week of the Christian calendar. Paris is unimaginable without Notre Dame since building started in the twelfth century. Generations of laborers spanning centuries erected stone by stone this shrine of the Catholic Faith. In a few hours, hellish flames brought the roof crashing down.
Was it an accident? Some see a terrible symbol amid the burning wreckage of the Church’s current disarray caused by clerics inflamed with lust and forsaking their vows of chastity. Many churches have been vandalized recently (about two acts of vandalism per day in France in 2017 alone—something barely covered by the news). In Paris, since the beginning of 2019, the church of St. Sulpice was set on fire and St. Denis (where most French kings were buried) was seriously damaged. Hosts were glued to a cross made from excrement at Notre Dame des Enfants in Nîmes, ciboriums filled with consecrated hosts were stolen in Lusignan and Talmon, etc.
Certainly, it is one more wake up call for the eldest daughter of the Church, the land where Our Lady has appeared more often than anywhere else. Incredible Gothic cathedrals and magnificent ancient churches are almost taken for granted in France. Now, we have graphic proof of how quickly it can all go up in flames. Brave men nonetheless saved the relics of the Passion of Christ, St. Louis’s hair shirt, and other precious items from the inferno. The rooster on the steeple containing part of the Crown of Thorns as well as relics of St. Denis and St. Genevieve, the patron saints of Paris, has been found in the ruins, but it is not clear if the relics are still inside. It is considered the “spiritual lightening rod” of the city and on it is written “A fulgur et tempestate et omni malo libera me Domine” (“From lightening, storm and all evil deliver me, O Lord”).
People in the crowds watching the flames prayed in the streets, standing as close as they could to Notre Dame. A few weeks ago over 100 young men came to a private meeting with the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Aupetit, to explore the priesthood when only 30 were expected—and this in the midst of the sexual abuse scandals. There are even martyrs today in France. Father Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old priest, was knifed to death by Jihadists on the altar while celebrating Mass in a small French village in 2016. Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was killed in 2018 after offering to exchange places with a mother held hostage by an Islamic terrorist in southern France.
Yet Catholicism is in crisis, and not just in France. But the past can give us hope. Few remember that the faith seemed destroyed after the French Revolution; for decades the majority of people no longer married in church nor had their children baptized. Then the Curé d’Ars entered the stage, new religious congregations founded schools that evangelized the middle and upper classes, the miraculous medal and Lourdes left their mark such that France was sending out half of the world’s Catholic missionaries by the end of the nineteenth century. When virulently anti-Catholic Freemasons ran the government at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a vibrant Church for them to persecute. They drove out all contemplative religious orders, yet thousands of monks came back for the First World War to give spiritual succor to the soldiers in the trenches and then refounded their monasteries. They successfully defied the government to try and exile them again. The Renouveau Catholique in the first half of the twentieth century made an impact on the culture and vocations flourished until the Sexual Revolution and the rejection of Humanae Vitae started its corroding effects, bringing about the spiritual wasteland we see today.
Surrounded by pain and tremendous loss, a choice awaits the French and all of us. The burning Cathedral of Notre Dame reminds me of Christ telling the weeping women of Jerusalem that they should not cry over him, but over their own children. Notre Dame is a symbol of the Christianity that Europe has been trying to forget and even destroy; yet worse awaits us if we don’t convert. The “gilets jaunes” demonstrations and acts of vandalism manifest the deep anger in a society that—for all of its many material comforts—could easily cascade into a revolution, something to which this people is prone. A society which kills its own children cannot be at peace, as Saint Mother Teresa stated often. Did not Marie-Julie Jahenny (1850-1941) receive private revelations from Christ that Paris would burn down, torched by its inhabitants (something confirmed by other modern mystics), if it did not convert?
The choice is ours. On a practical, human level, much effort will be made to rebuild Notre Dame just as there were desperate attempts to save the cathedral (400 firefighters were on the scene within 15 minutes). Within 24 hours, €750 million were pledged, mainly from major French companies. As President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday evening in front of the burning church: “We will rebuild this cathedral again all together.” Yet art historian Alexandre Gardy added: “We will not reconstruct Notre Dame; we will repair it. But we have lost it.” Notre Dame Cathedral will never be the same. But the only way to make its heart beat again will not be its reconstruction—however important that may be—but if Parisians and pilgrims from everywhere come back to pray in it.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019, in the French capital. (Photo credit: FABIEN BARRAU/AFP/Getty Images)