First commissioned by King Louis VII in 1163, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris took nearly 200 years to build. Since its completion in 1345, it has stood as a monument to the glory of French, European, and Western civilizations. Twelve million visitors or more are drawn to the Cathedral every year to admire its Gothic architecture, flying buttresses, and majestic rose windows.
But, in just a few shocking hours, the shrine was almost completely destroyed. Its near obliteration in a fire yesterday is front page news the world over. It was devastating to watch the live video of the billowing smoke, searing flames, and collapsing spire. Though the worst has been avoided, as it now appears the stone vault and interior remain largely intact (along with the two bell towers of the Cathedral’s iconic facade), the world still mourns the damage done, the full measure of which is yet to be determined.
As the eyes of the world turned to Paris yesterday in concern for the survival of a monument of unique importance in the history of art and architecture, what did they see? As Sohrab Ahmari noted yesterday on Twitter, the world was looking at a cross. A burning cross at the center of Paris for the Notre-Dame Cathedral is cruciform in shape. Let us pray that what rises from the ashes of this tragedy is a recognition that the heritage of France, Europe and the West is cruciform, for Notre-Dame is a monument in stone to the Christian Faith that built these civilizations.
One can readily see in the fire a metaphor for the state of the Faith in Europe in this increasingly secular age. But after the Cross comes Resurrection—and yesterday provided signs of hope.
The first sign came in the immediate concern expressed for the Blessed Sacrament. That the tabernacle was emptied and Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist was saved from harm is a consolation. The priests and firefighters who facilitated this reminded the world that the whole purpose for the construction of Notre-Dame in the first place was to be a worthy dwelling place for God. I am reminded of Cordelia’s conversation with Charles in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. She tells him about the closing of the chapel at their family estate after the funeral of her mother and explains having to watch the priest empty the tabernacle, leaving its golden door ajar. “I suppose none of this makes sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic.” she said. “I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel any more, just an oddly decorated room.”
Indeed, without the Blessed Sacrament the Notre-Dame Cathedral would be just an odd-looking building in the heart of a cosmopolitan city. It is the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that makes it a church. It was to provide a worthy dwelling place for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist that inspired our ancestors in the Faith to spend their lives building such a glorious edifice. That same faith was on display yesterday when the Blessed Sacrament was rescued.
The second sign of hope was the concern given to also saving one of Christendom’s most cherished relics—the Crown of Thorns. When King Saint Louis IX acquired this instrument of Our Lord’s Passion and brought it to Paris in 1239, he removed his own crown and royal robes to walk barefoot behind the relic as it was carried in procession through the city streets. That same faith was on display yesterday when the Crown of Thorns was saved amid and through the flames.
Finally, the “living stones” of the Church took to the streets of Paris to remind us that the Church is more that just stones but is Christ’s Mystical Body on Earth. It was deeply moving to see the crowds kneeling in prayer in the shadow of Notre-Dame singing the Ave Maria. Why were their tears in the eyes of so many Parisians? Were they crying simply over damage done to a building of grand art and architecture? Or were they crying over something more? Perhaps it was over the lost Catholic identity of their nation symbolized in the flames engulfing Notre-Dame.
And when the French President, Emmanuel Macron, made a solemn promise to rebuild the Cathedral, it should be asked, why? Why bother with such an investment of time, money, and effort? It only makes sense if it is for the same reason it was built in the first place. It must be rebuilt for the glory of Jesus Christ and His Mother. The beauty and meaning of Notre-Dame lies in the religious beliefs, principles, and culture that inspired its construction. The same faith that inspired its builders 800 years ago was on full display yesterday in the uplifting sounds of the Ave Maria being sung by the crowds on the streets of Paris.
Through the intercession of the Mother of God, may this tragedy remind us of Notre-Dame’s true purpose. And may we see this wonder restored along with Faith that built it.
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