The tragic hope of the flames of Notre Dame
Even I was saddened by the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I say “even I” because I am utterly unable to escape the symbolic density of a cathedral burning in the midst of Europe’s profound loss of Faith—a cathedral that has been maintained for centuries more as a monument to national pride than as a commitment to Catholicism.
This means that my immediate sadness over a fire that has claimed international attention has been tinged by what I might call the sadness of “what is fitting”. The loss of Faith is far more significant and sad than the loss of a building, even if it is a great church. For me there is always in these situations, lurking in the background, a sense of judgment.
And yet there are not only red but silver linings in this cloud of smoke.
First, and most obviously, while the cause is apparently not yet precisely known, there is no suspicion of foul play of any kind, let alone anti-Catholic foul play. Given the number of church desecrations in France over the past few years, this—if it holds up, as it is expected to do—is good news.
Second, there emerged a genuine witness to the Faith in response to the fire, with a healthy number of practicing Catholics drawing near to the Cathedral, praying and singing Ave Maria. That many lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics also turned out is, of course, a tribute to the other meanings people attribute to the building—its architectural and artistic achievement, its skyline dominance, its symbolism of France—meanings which pale in comparison with the church’s Christian purpose. But these meanings still signify that the Faith brings out what is noble in the human heart and mind, and spurs the human person to remarkable achievements which far transcend his own self-important desires.
Third, the very jolt of the danger is the kind of thing that makes people reevaluate. At the most basic level, many people undertook considerable risk to ensure human safety and rescue the movable works of art so that they would not be irreparably damaged. The chaplain of the Paris fire service, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, played a large role in that effort, renewing the heroism he had demonstrated in helping the wounded after a terrorist attack in 2015.
Valuing some things over art, Fr. Fournier secured the famous Crown of Thorns relic from the burning church. The relic is believed to be the circlet of rushes from the original crown of thorns worn by Christ. Records extend back as far as the sixth century in Jerusalem. Only some fragments of the crown kept in the church spire are believed to have been destroyed. But it is even more important that the chaplain saved the Blessed Sacrament from the flames.
Among other rescued relics was the tunic of Saint Louis, which dates to the thirteenth century. Of course, on websites where reader comments are allowed in response to news stories, there have been the inescapable mocking remarks. But that is in stark contrast to what people felt and saw and said at the scene.
Renovation and reconstruction
Fourth and finally, it is no small matter that a great many people, both thoroughly secularized and thoroughly religious, feel the loss. What is Christian is also supremely human, exercising an attractive power in a wide variety of ways, even when there is no explicit faith. This is evident in the immediate commitments of the very wealthy to restore Notre Dame.
This building, which has been maintained only grudgingly for a long time, is now a cause célèbre. Even if there are a wide variety of motives, over $700 million in private donations has already been committed to a renovation which French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to see completed in five years. (More sober estimates suggest ten to fifteen years is more likely.)
Whatever the case, including everyone from Catholics to atheists, here are some of the early reconstruction commitments reported by Forbes:
- Francois-Henry Pinault family (at least $113 million)
- Bernard Arnault family (LVMH) ($226 million)
- Bettencourt Meyers family (L’Oréal) ($226 million)
- Henry Kravis (KKR) ($10 million)
Additional gifts have (according to the Washington Post) been promised by Apple and by the French oil company, Total. Even Charles Goss, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed atheist, has already raised over $27,000 in an online funding campaign.
One can hope, then, that the Cathedral of Notre Dame will attract even more attention in the future than it has in the past. Sometimes when we look beyond ourselves, we are surprised to find God. Sometimes when we make a sacrifice, we are surprised to find Christ. Why we should be surprised remains a mystery. But here is a great truth of human existence: Sometimes we are.
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