In remarkable video on Monday, just hours after the horrific fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, Catholics gathered to sing “Ave Maria” in front of the blaze. The iconic church, upon which construction began in 1163, is, aside from St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the most important architectural triumph of Catholicism’s 2,000-year history. The loss of so much of it can be spoken of in the same breath as the first Temple of Jerusalem or the Library of Alexandria.
And yet, even as this sacred space—more connected to Paris than even the Eiffel Tower—burned, Parisian Catholics gathered to pray, and to sing. This was evidence of two important things. First, Christ does not allow tragedy and suffering to afflict His flock without His precious gifts to help them. Second, as majestic and powerful as the cathedral is, it is not the Church. Rather, the Church is those Catholics finding grace in God’s love and all of us sharing in that grace even in the face of terrible loss.
Ave Maria pic.twitter.com/lb6Y5XV05a
— Ignacio Gil (@Inaki_Gil) April 15, 2019
The secular world suffered a terrible loss today; all of mankind did. As a historical monument, Notre Dame bespeaks a moment of Western history that, perhaps even more than the Renaissance, signaled the coming of a new world, one in which the public was the beneficiary of remarkable beauty, and when a menaced Europe created grand structures to pronounce its power. But this is not a mere building, magnificent as it is. It is a house of God, specifically a house of the Lord Jesus Christ.
For the Catholic Church, there has always been a tension between the grandiose structures, the incense and gold, and the modest ways of Christ who was more comfortable preaching in the fields than in the temple. It is an unmistakable realization that Notre Dame burned during Holy Week, when Jesus overturned the table of the moneychangers at the temple. But we are mere humans, we are not Christ, we are more like the Magi, and we offer him gifts. For 12th century Parisians, Notre Dame was such a gift. And for a millennium, it has stood near the center of our faith.
What is stunning about seeing 21st century Parisians kneel and pray as their greatest tribute to Christ burned is that a thousand years earlier, their ancestors created this cathedral for just this purpose. They created it so that Catholics would see it; they gave it bells so Catholics would hear them; and they made it as a constant reminder of our faith and subservience to God. Today, we can say with full hearts that they succeeded in that mission.
It is best not to read too much of God’s intentions into the mercurial phenomenon of humble man—we do not speak that language. But it is right and just to ponder it, to ask ourselves if the fire that burned away at that beautiful church has any message for us. I would not be so bold to suggest, as Crusader armies did when they lost a battle, that this loss occurred “for our sins,” but I cannot consider this event, especially in the Lenten season, without it pointing me to my sins, as a reminder of them.
Yes, this a tragedy for the world, for all of us. But for Catholics it is more, as the grieving Parisians showed us. It is an opportunity, such as we have everyday in quieter, less famous moments, to ask ourselves if we are with Christ, if we trust and obey him. For most, if not all Catholics, the answer is usually no, and a request for forgiveness. But today, in Paris, as Catholics sang before the ashes of their soon-to-be ruin, as they took comfort in the Lord to soothe them, as they and all of us prepare to celebrate his resurrection and the life to come, the answer was yes.