This Monday, the world watched as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the magnificent symbol of Paris, of France, and of the Catholic Church, was engulfed in flames. People watched from the streets and on screens across the world in stunned disbelief. Parisians gathered in the streets gasped as the flames and smoke rose to the heavens and as the soaring flèche, the magnificent spire atop the crossing of the cathedral, toppled into ruin.
As the day wound on, all the world was anxious to hear whether or not the church would be lost to the world in its entirety. Reports came in from the firefighters that they feared the great bell towers, composed by the genius of the medieval mind and appearing to have golden ratio proportions in their design, would collapse into a heap of rubble. Videos showed hundreds of people gathered across the Seine River praying the Rosary and singing hymns, mourning the imminent and permanent loss of the cathedral. It was as if they were watching a beautiful and dear friend dying before their eyes. Thankfully, the cathedral appears to have suffered much less than what had been feared, but the damage is catastrophic and the pain that the world feels is still very real.
We as human beings fill our lives, personal spaces, and cities with symbols to give us guideposts to what is important and valued, to what is sacred and what is profane. Churches, and particularly the great cathedrals of Europe, represent a time when the Faith was the single most important symbol of humanity. Notre Dame, the mother church of all of France, demonstrates by dominating the skyline of Paris how for centuries we expressed in stone the importance of the Faith over all other concerns in a Christian society. Losing this great cathedral is more than just losing any other building, it is as if a part of the soul of all of us is being destroyed.
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It is perhaps just coincidence that the great Cathedral of Paris dedicated to Our Lady was engulfed in flame at the beginning of Holy Week, but I tend not to think so. As Archbishop Sheen once said, nothing that Our Lady does is by chance. One simply cannot avoid the connection that the “death” of the Cathedral of Notre Dame somehow echoes the death of Our Lord, which we commemorate this Holy Week on Good Friday.
Christ’s death on the cross is indeed something that we are all called to face as Catholics—that because of our sins he died for us and that we mourn his death deeply are basic facts of our faith. Watching the great spire fall into the flames one cannot help but reflect on Christ’s death, and be reminded that indeed nothing of this world is truly permanent. Despite the towering mass of permanent stones having stood for over 850 years, this monument to the Faith appeared to us this week to be just as fragile a creation as any human being. It reminded us that we, too, must eventually die.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt, as the President of France vowed after touring the still-smoking ruins. Billionaires from France, and millions of people from around the world have vowed to contribute to the reconstruction, and this gives those of us who love art and architecture hope that someday the glories of Notre Dame will be visible to us again, and for those of us who are Catholics the opportunity to again pray there before the Eucharist.
Certainly, there is precedent for such reconstruction, as churches such as the Frauenkirche in Dresden demonstrate. Dresden, once considered the “Paris on the Elbe,” was mercilessly firebombed during World War II. After a raging fire, the Frauenkirche, or “Church of Our Lady,” was left in ruins. After being left as a pile of stones by the Communist East German government for a half-century, the people of Dresden rebuilt the church to its former glory and it now soars as the symbol of that beautiful city once again.
In 1823, the magnificent Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls suffered a fate similar to Notre Dame when work on the lead roof sparked a fire that consumed the ancient basilica. Due to the painstaking documentation of the church by French architectural historians, particularly Paul Letarouilly among others, the basilica was entirely rebuilt shortly thereafter. Today it is as beautiful as it ever had been, and the resting place of St. Paul is still a place of holiness. One could say in a sense that these churches were not just rebuilt, but, in a deep symbolic sense, resurrected.
Here is the great coincidence that Notre Dame burned during Holy Week: we look forward to its reconstruction to symbolize in stone that wondrous fact of our Faith that we rejoice in, which is the coming of Easter Sunday. On the third day after his death on the cross, Jesus rose from the tomb into new life. The rebuilding of the cathedral would be not just a work of art, but a work of faith—just as it was for those who built it—symbolizing Christ himself, resurrected and glorified.
As we look forward to the reconstruction of Notre Dame, we ought to also reflect on this: the path of faith is not without pain. To be united with the Lord, we all must die in order to be glorified and made anew. Our path of redemption can be symbolized by this great fire; it is only through suffering that we are raised to new life.
So, too, in the Church as a whole, which is suffering a similar conflagration. Our struggles today can also be seen in the flames: the consuming fire of sexual abuse and corruption that threatens to reduce the Church of Christ to ashes. But we must always have hope in the promise that Christ gave to Peter, namely, that the gates of hell will not prevail. Like the cathedral, the Church is made of many parts, and although some of those parts—like the great oaken members—were consumed by flames, the church as a whole still stands, ready for new growth to replace the old.
We should reflect on this fire as it relates to our own lives. Our sorrow and shock at the fire should be equal to our shock and sorrow at our own sins which threaten to consume our souls. We ought to take this week to commit ourselves to putting out the fires with confession and rebuilding our souls and our Church with our prayer.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, firetrucks are seen around Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France, on April 16, 2019, following a major fire. The fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the famous spire to collapse. (Photo credit: Richard Bord/Getty Images)