Yesterday Paris, France and the world watched in shock and sadness as flames engulfed the 14th Century Gothic Cathedral known as Notre Dame, a religious, cultural and national symbol of France, and the West.
My sincere condolences to the French. The good news is that it seems that the cathedral structure itself, along with numerous works of art, were saved.
A thoughtful article in the Guardian reflected on the event, inviting Europeans not to ‘take what you value for granted.’ However, the article focuses primarily on the cultural and artistic meaning of the cathedral.
We cannot forget, as George Weigel in ‘Witness to Hope’ rightly points out, that at the heart of culture is worship. The centuries of effort to build and beautify Notre Dame, begun in 1163 and completed in 1345, was motivated by a profound love for Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, the cathedral’s namesake, and the Catholic faith.
For art to inspire it must first be inspired in the hearts and minds of the artists. From whence do they get their inspiration? The value of true art goes well beyond self-expression, it points to a transcendent beauty that resonates in the hearts and minds of its viewers precisely because they too sense that there is a deeper meaning, and truth behind the artwork.
Notre Dame spoke to us not just because it was beautiful; it spoke to us because it reminded us of heaven – the very purpose of Gothic architecture. When you entered the cathedral, its sheer height almost obliged you to look upward, towards heaven. You felt the grandeur and glory of God represented in the building itself. The large stained-glass windows by their mere size, and irrespective of the images they depicted, spoke to the onlooker of a God who is light, ‘I am the light of the world’ [cf. Jn 8:12].
Even amidst the flames Notre Dame’s transcendent message still spoke to us.
The fact that the Notre Dame suffered such damage at the beginning of Holy Week is not lost to believers. The Church, Mystical Body of Christ, identifies with her suffering Lord, particularly in the week of his Passion. The Church has suffered throughout history, and she continues to do so. Much of the suffering is self-inflicted through the scandals and sins of both her pastors and the faithful. She suffers religious indifference, anti-religious sentiment and laws, and even outright persecution. Recently in France alone at least 12 Churches were desecrated.
Frequently in her history, the Church seemed to be on the brink of dying out. Many in the West seem to think that that is again the case. Some might even take the burning of the Notre Dame as a symbol of that crisis of faith in the West.
We as Catholics, however, must not be discouraged. If we follow our Lord in his Passion, by faithfully and lovingly accepting the daily crosses and sacrifices life brings, we will be contributing to a renewal of the faith. For every Good Friday, there follows an Easter. That was true of Christ. That is true of his Church. As G. K. Chesterton put it, ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave’ [Everlasting Man, 162].
We value the cathedrals and churches built throughout the centuries as rich cultural and artistic depositories. We appreciate the singular prominence that Notre Dame possesses in France and the rest of Europe. Still we must remember that the ‘Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands’ [Act 7:48]. The Church is the body of the baptized united in faith, nourished by the sacraments and governed by the Magisterium. She is animated and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God, the French, with the support of many throughout the world, seem determined to rebuild Notre Dame. May Catholics show that same determination to pray and work for a renewal of the faith that built the cathedral in the first place.
Fr. John Bullock, LC