Huh? It’s sarcasm or something, I guessed. But I played along: “Why?”
“Turn TV on. I’m crying.”
What is it?! I went from zero to panic in an instant, but I didn’t want to fish the remote out from the couch cushions just yet. Why couldn’t he simply tell me what happened?
Then my patience kicked in. Oh no… maybe because it’s too awful to say… what if something happened to the President? You know what, I don’t wanna know!
But soon the answer came: “Notre Dame is burning to the ground.”
My thoughts went careening from the national theatre, somersaulting across the pond and landed with a splat in front of those iconic square bell towers. The last time I was there, a solemn high Mass had been celebrated to commence the three-day Pilgrimage to Chartres. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world had packed out every inch of that checkered floor, the massive organ was bellowing and the chant was glorious. Our feet didn’t hurt yet, our joints weren’t on fire, our hair hadn’t assumed the texture of modeling clay. We just existed blissfully in that magnificent space and took part in the Ceremony for which the cathedral had been built.
It wasn't hard to imagine that the cathedral herself was proud that day. Every year we brought back the Mass of Ages to her historic, cold, stone walls. Every Spring she could look forward to achieving her full potential as an instrument in the glorification of God through the Ancient Rite of saints and Catholic kings. She heard the familiar old Latin prayers, and playfully echoed the joyful tunes of praise up through her vaulted ceiling and on toward Heaven.
And she gave us something else, too. She inspired us to stand taller, to pray harder, to love more, and to catch a glimpse of the glory of Christendom and feel we might be able to reach out and touch history by laying a hand on one of her massive stone columns. She taught us about the faith of our fathers in every stained-glass window and in the very craftsmanship of her architecture itself. She was grand, magnificent, imposing, and yet home. She was ours.
By now I had located the remote and found the news station.
I stood in shock as smoke bellowed from her roof and frantic orange flames screeched toward the sky. How could it be true? Yet there it was… Notre Dame was burning to the ground.
I went through all the phases I think most of us went through: devastated silence, then panic, then “where the heck are the firefighters—why can’t they drop water from the sky?!”, then quiet tears, then (I’m embarrassed to admit—finally) remembering to pray.
The people of Paris cued me in to the prayer part. They were on their knees singing the Hail Mary.
We know what it means to Catholics, but what does it mean to the rest?
It is part of the soul of the French nation. Imagine their utter devastation; a piece of their heart was dying. Catholic or otherwise, the flames licking their way across the 850-year-old vault were a punch in the gut to every onlooker. The French President declared it a national emergency and the entire fire brigade was deployed to save the building. It’s not Paris without Notre Dame, and even those who lived in the city and passed it by every day until it hardly merited a glance, needed it to be there--as a constant reminder of what once had been.
The world, in fact, needs her to stand, and for the same reason.
Catholic and secular alike. Did anyone else realize that all across the mainstream media, no one said a negative word about the Catholic Church that day? For 24 hours, everyone was on the side of Catholics, wanting the same thing and backing our prayers with their own silent support: Let Notre Dame be spared.
Can it be that even secular society takes comfort in the presence of her grand, stone witness to what one atheist historian called “the symbol of the best part of humanity,” representing everything that is good and beautiful in man, and his striving toward “a spirituality of the highest and most glorious levels.”
It’s as if Notre Dame is, in miniature, what the Catholic Church is to the world. Despite the fact that most have kicked the Church to the curb and turned their backs on God, deep down many of them want the Church to remain, almost like a comforting presence in their periphery. They’re always going to do as they please, but they want the Church to keep doing Her job. They need someone there to hold the standard and hold it high, because they will fall short of the standard and they know it.
Maybe this is the reason Vatican II was so sinister; it’s the point at which the Church simply stopped doing Her job. She left her high position in order to bow and scrape to the world, which reacted with all the resentment of a child toward a neglectful parent.
No one’s waiting up now when the child comes home after curfew. No one’s holding him accountable for his reckless decisions or proving their love for him by caring about his wellbeing. And in return he becomes more self-destructive, more defiant, more angry.
The Church has lost the respect She once commanded, and with it the love and loyalty of Her children. But despite it all, even as the world spirals into one of the worst self-destructive freefalls in history, one church caught on fire and stopped it dead the whole world in its tracks… if only for a moment.
The unity which gripped the world yesterday as we all turned grief-stricken faces toward Notre Dame and willed it to stand was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 28 years. No matter where you’ve come from, you know the cathedral of Notre Dame. You’ve been there, or seen pictures, or read about it in stories; you’re invested. It stands for something greater than us, and whether we have all the Catholic answers or not, we recognize its significance. My militantly-atheist aunt said it was her favorite church in Europe. And the success stories surrounding the event keep growing.
God doesn’t create messes....but He helps us figure out solutions. We can see His hand in the aftermath already.
First the fire brigade’s chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, saved the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. He was trained in the traditional rite by the FSSP, was a military chaplain in Sissonne, France, and served in Afghanistan for a time.
The Crown of Thorns was rescued by Fr. Fournier (right, on the night of the fire)
The story goes that in 2015, after the terrorist attack on the Paris music venue where 89 were killed, he rushed inside in order to impart absolution. I hope he writes a memoir!
Next we heard that the bell towers would survive, then that the high altar was intact, including its surrounding statues and candelabras—while the Novus Ordo table, courtesy of Vatican II, which had been plunked down where the altar rail used to be, was crushed by the falling spire that succumbed to the blaze. God’s got a sense of humor, right?
In the morning the fire was gone, and so was the roof, but the structure remained. Notre Dame survived a literal hell. She outlasted it, and she will rise again!
The plans for repair are taking shape with lightning speed; the French President has promised the new roof will be completed in five years and will be “even more beautiful.” Imagine what it will be like for secularist Paris—up to and including the liberals in office—for everyone in that city to be united for the next half-decade in the restoration of Notre Dame.
You’ve heard all this already, I’m sure. Believe what you will, but the fact that Notre Dame herself still stands is cause enough for joy.
She has become to me a symbol of Catholic resilience. I hope we can remember the trauma of Monday in the light of the good that has come about since then. There is hope for Notre Dame, and by extension for the Church Herself and for humanity. As long as the will to persevere, to fight and to love remains within us, Notre Dame will do the rest-- and her Cathedral will rise again.