The first sight of Notre Dame Cathedral on fire in Paris was a gut punch akin to watching the first broadcasts of the World Trade Center’s twin towers spewing smoke in 2001.
The New York towers’ fire soon turned into the horror of so many lives lost in their collapse after that shocking attack.
Fortunately, Notre Dame’s heartbreaking burning April 15 didn’t take any lives and the apparently accidental destruction of the 850-year-old building’s roof left the iconic cathedral’s walls and towers standing. There is optimism in France that Notre Dame can be rebuilt with much of its original architecture in place.
In the meantime, the church’s ancient stones and mortar must now bear up under the weight of commentaries on: the symbolism of the cathedral’s near-death during Holy Week; its fire amid continuing protests in Paris for economic justice; and its rescue in light of the Catholic Church’s diminished influence in France and also Rome’s efforts to reform policies responding to clerical sexual abuse cases worldwide.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Cathedrals are symbols to begin with, outward signs of religious faith. Notre Dame, like so many medieval churches, is festooned with statues and stained-glass windows depicting biblical events from the Old Testament through the life of Christ and the Apostles. The invaluable artwork was used as catechetical aids to teach Catholic beliefs to the illiterate populace. And the beauty of the art throughout the magnificent cathedrals pointed to eternal truths both then and now.
So, yes, the unexpected blaze at Notre Dame is a lesson that reflects the story of Jesus’ life, passion and resurrection. The temple-cathedral torn down, destroyed by fire, will rise again on the third day, whether that’s five or 10 years from now.
However, beyond any symbolism, it was striking that in the center of sophisticated Paris, on the streets incensed by the smoke from the cathedral, people broke out in prayer. Amid their shock and awe at seeing the beloved cathedral ablaze, faith overcame disbelief and many Parisians prayed and sang hymns to God and Our Lady, “Notre Dame.”
That’s what cathedrals and all churches and religious buildings, do. Their solid presence in towns and cities are reminders of the eternal. But they are part of this passing temporal world, so are subject to the same physical trials their congregations are. They age (ask any pastor how old the church’s roof or heating system is.) And they don’t last forever.
Catholic immigrant communities of the 19th and 20th centuries built hundreds of cathedral-sized churches in the United States with their hard-earned dollars as proud testimonies of their faith. A sad number of those churches are now empty or sold due to the successful assimilation of the immigrants’ descendants who moved from the city neighborhoods of their grandparents to suburban developments.
It’s to the Diocese of Wilmington’s credit, I believe, that as Wilmington’s Catholic population spread from the city into New Castle County, the diocese has never moved on from its modestly proportioned Cathedral of St. Peter at 6th and West Streets in the city. That commitment to the neighborhood is a reminder that cathedrals are more than fashionable places. They’re faith-filled reminders of eternity.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame in Paris several times. Its towers, flying buttresses and hushed interior convey a sense of prayerful centuries. Encountering that church facing its public square is a moment of time travel. Notre Dame’s beauty is nearly 1,000 years old and its presence in the 21st century immediately conjures up the people who built it. The anonymous artisans to carved its statues and the workers who shaped its stones for the glory of God in the confidence of their faith.
They created a gift for the future in their lives’ work, shaping stone, erecting towers and mixing mortar.
Few of their names are known but their masterpiece remains an inspiration to us, even in its current marred condition.
There aren’t many cathedrals left to be built in 2019. Yet we can still live each day as Notre Dame’s cathedral builders did. Living for the glory of God, always mindful of the eternal and working in faith to love one another. It would be our greatest gift to the future.
Joseph Ryan is a former editor of The Dialog.