I am fortunate to have visited Notre Dame de Paris before the fire. I went twice, seven years ago when my wife and I were living in the south of France. I was not yet a Catholic back then, and went to Notre Dame as a tourist. Even then, the immensity, grandeur, and transcendent beauty of the place made a deep impression on me. If man can imagine and build such a thing for God, I thought, what must God have in store for man?
I see now that Notre Dame was, for me, a small step—a push—toward the Catholic Church. It was a sign, a physical manifestation of an eternal truth that I had not yet been able to recognize in full, but that, standing amid the soaring Gothic columns of the cathedral, I intuited. On some level I knew that Notre Dame, the place itself, proclaimed the truth—about its patron the Blessed Virgin Mary, about heaven and hell and all creation, about man and God and His church.
The burning of Notre Dame has now brought us a new sign. Rod Dreher writes that it “symbolizes what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony. What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.”
Many others echoed this sentiment over the last 48 hours, and while fairly obvious, it is not wrong. What more powerful symbol of the decline of faith and religion could there be than Notre Dame engulfed in flames? For believers, the flames are clearly a call to repentance and conversion. As C.C. Pecknold rightly notes, “To truly rebuild Notre Dame will require becoming the kind of people who built her in the first place.” That we are not now that kind of people, there is no doubt.
What Macron and Others Get Wrong About Rebuilding
Consider French President Emmanuel Macron, who said Tuesday that Notre Dame will be rebuilt within the next five years. Imagine the hubris it takes to look at a burned out Notre Dame, a cathedral that took centuries to build, and proclaim the day afterward that it will be rebuilt, even greater than before, in five years.
In this, Macron embodies the very worldview that makes the resurrection of Notre Dame, at least by secular westerners, impossible. The urge to proclaim that it will be rebuilt—even more splendorous than before!—in just five years is what you would expect from those who mistake the cathedral building, in all its splendor, for the truth that the cathedral points to.
It’s also partly what’s behind the reaction of pundits like Ben Shapiro, who described Notre Dame as a “monument to Western civilization,” later tweeting, “If we wish to uphold the beauty and profundity of the Notre Dame cathedral, that means re-familiarizing ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles that built it.”
But Notre Dame is not primarily a monument to Western civilization, it is a monument to the Holy Mother of God and the salvation of Jesus Christ, and it will take more than “re-familiarizing ourselves” with western philosophical and religious principles to revive the faith that erected it 800 years ago.
That is, it will take real faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—and real repentance for our rejection of that faith. Listening to the likes of Macron, one despairs. Whether he realized it or not, Macron was echoing the Jews in the second chapter of St. John’s gospel, when Jesus drove out the moneychangers from the temple:
So the Jews answered and said to Him, ‘What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.
A Call to Repentance and Conversion
The burning of Notre Dame is not a challenge to restore a jewel of Western civilization, or a call to reflect on the philosophical principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage, or even—as it will surely be construed—an opportunity to unite around our “shared heritage” or some such. Such platitudes will not do. At this late hour, the burning of Notre Dame is nothing less than a call to repentance and conversion.
That is not because if we repent and convert we will be spared the future flames and disasters of history, but because repentance and conversion are the only means by which we overcome the ultimate disaster, which is death and separation from God.
The West lost sight of that truth some time ago, and it might never regain it. As for Catholics and all Christians, we will suffer much more than the fire of Notre Dame in the years and generations to come. As then-theology professor Fr. Joseph Ratzinger said in 1969 about the future of the church:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
Notre Dame was once a symbol of heaven on earth. Today, it is a symbol of how far we have drifted from the divine vision it has proclaimed down the centuries—and how far we will have to go to recover it.