Yes it is sad that the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned down. It is good that it seems it will not be entirely destroyed and that many important things inside the building were apparently rescued. It even seems that nobody was hurt (granted I am writing this as the story is still unfolding). I squirm at the sight of the images of the fire, and I would have prevented it from happening if I could have.
Here is the thing.
I have been to the cathedral plenty of times (I used to live not far away and have occasionally visited Paris since). There is just no denying that the priorities at Notre Dame were backwards. And to anyone who has gone there to try to pray, you know what I mean. It has been, for a very long time, a place 99% dedicated to tourism, and 1% to prayer. I recall one afternoon when I was in the chapel in the far back end of the ambulatory, where the Blessed Sacrament was. There were perhaps 2 or 3 other people with me. After a little while, for no apparent reason, some guards came all of a sudden and told us we had to leave and re-join the Kabah-like crowd of tourists circling the nave. I suppose they were setting up for something, but that was extremely frustrating and disappointing nonetheless, and I bet it happened all the time. I recall there also being a large commercial operation near the entrance, selling various memorabilia. It always unsettled me to see… Of course it is not quite on par with the money-changers at the Temple whom Our Lord attacked twice, but it was not at all appropriate. Misplaced priorities.
And now this symbolic heart of the French Church – and in many ways the European Church – is practically destroyed. What an apt metaphor. People indeed have marveled at the “culture” of the Church through this splendid building. Well, now that is gone, for the time being. What will be done? What leg is there to stand on except faith? A fine leg indeed – much stronger than wood and stone, even beautiful wood and stone.
Recall that Europe was not always the mainland of Christendom. It was once North Africa… It produced saints like Augustine, Cyprian, Cyril, and on and on. Today it is not like that, if you didn’t know. Nor is Turkey, which was also once a booming epicenter of Christian orthodoxy and apostolic zeal. Europe is quickly becoming like these places. There have been attacks on several French churches in the past few weeks. St. Sulpice, another incredible Parisian church, was also on fire just last month. I am not an apocalyptic conspiracy-theorist, so I won’t go there – but that God has allowed all of this should be cause to stop and think a bit. Why are we so concerned to preserve these churches? Is it just because they are nice pieces of eye candy, or is it for something more?
This will be an immensely important chance for the French clergy to capitalize on vast swarms of media attention which they are about to encounter, and the momentous effort which will surely go into the restoration of this magnificent church. Let us pray that they use the opportunity not only to do and say the obvious, but that they also point to the Tabernacle not made with human hands… Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Our Lady of Paris… Pray for us.