On Monday of Holy Week, the world watched in stunned horror as Notre Dame de Paris, one of the jewels of the French Church, was consumed in fire. The great steeple—le fleche as the French called it—collapsed in flames as the entire roof, and seemingly the whole interior of the glorious Cathedral were destroyed.
As of this writing, we still don’t know how the fire started. Official word is that it was an accident, though the circumstances—coming at the start of Holy Week and amid a wave of attacks on churches, including an arsonist’s fire at St. Sulpice, Paris’s second largest church—are, at the very least, suspicious. That the Paris authorities ruled it an accident before the investigation had even begun, indeed, while the flames were still burning, only adds to the uncertainty.
But all that is for the future, and certainly we hope that it was an accident. For now, let us consider the meaning of what we saw.
What Notre Dame Cathedral Means
We watched one of the great treasures of the western world burn. Nine hundred years of history was seemingly going up in smoke before our eyes. The heart of French Christianity – the eldest daughter of the Church, the sire of Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, Francois de Sales, and a thousand others – was being gutted before us.
In short, we saw a vision of what we have been doing, with increasing speed, for the past few centuries, and certainly for the past few decades. We had a vision of the destruction of Christendom, the desecration of faith, the squandering of inheritance, and the neglect of duty. Even if it turns out the fire was an accident, the only reason it happened was because the church roof had been neglected so long that it was falling into ruin.
We are the heirs of Christendom. We have inherited treasures beyond belief; Notre Dame Cathedral is only one jewel among hundreds of such cathedrals and churches, living prayers in stone and glass, not to mention the great palaces and other architectural wonders of the past. The treasures of Notre Dame are but a tiny fraction of the artistic tradition that has come down to us, not to mention the vast inheritance of learning, manners, morality, and law carried down through the centuries. While Notre Dame was being constructed, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure were teaching theology and studying Aristotle a few blocks away, and St. Louis the king was laying down the principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty.
Most important of all, of course, is the faith which Notre Dame and all the other Cathedrals were built to glorify; the true faith, which God sent His Son to establish upon Earth that man no longer need walk in darkness. We are heirs to the promise and saving work of Christ, of the knowledge that God has been among us and preached His Word to us as a man, and took upon Himself the punishment of our sins.
The Church and Her History in Flames
And what do we do with that inheritance, that unspeakable wealth of centuries? We neglect it, ignore it, and condemn it. In art we celebrate departures from tradition, however hideous or meaningless, as bold and original. In history we speak of the great men of the past as if they were ignorant children to be taken apart and explained by us. In education we dismiss the works of Aristotle, Aquinas, Cicero, Shakespeare, and other giants in order to cling to the latest fashionable turn of thought.
And in the Church? Endless compromise, equivocation, and retreat. We neglect the sturdy, precise teachings of the past in favor of buzzwords like ‘dialogue.’ We worry more about offending non-believers than spreading and maintaining the word of God. All too often, we don’t even attempt to defend the faith; we only seek to appease the faithless. The glorious traditions of the Church that have nourished so many saints are dismissed as “rigid” in favor of shallow affirmations, and the beautiful old churches are neglected while drab, hideous new ones are erected in their place.
What more fitting vision could we be granted than of our inheritance being burned before our eyes?
Yet, I see hope in the vision as well. When the fire was at last brought under control, an image appeared from inside the Cathedral: the golden cross above the almost unharmed altar gleaming brightly amid the smoke. In spite of neglect, malice, and contempt, Christ remains, and as long as He remains, the Church will survive.
Indeed, we soon learned that the damage, while severe, was far less than we feared. The spire and roof were lost, and who knows how much else, but almost the entire of the interior and main structure of the church are still intact, shielded by the stone vaulted ceiling. The Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns were saved by a heroic priest. The cloak of St. Louis, the statue of Our Lady of Paris, the bells and bell towers, all have survived. Most miraculously of all, the three irreplaceable Rose Windows, which of all things seemed most certain to be destroyed, have reportedly escaped intact.
And while the fire was burning, we saw haunting images of Parisians standing in silent, stunned horror, watching their heritage being destroyed before their eyes. Some took up hymns, hundreds prayed on their Rosaries.
“The way to love anything,” Chesterton told us, “Is to realize that it may be lost.” It may be, and let us pray that is, that the realization of what we have nearly lost will reawaken the love of Christ in the heart of France.
In any case, I take a new lesson from the fire; that amid the neglect and waste, amid the heresy and malice, perhaps things are not as bad as they appear. Much will be lost before we come out of this inferno in the Church, but Christ is ever faithful, and those who have gone before us built a mighty edifice. It is our duty to save what can be saved, to try to put out the fire, or at the very least to pray that it might be preserved.