Much has been, and will continue to be, made of the symbolic value of both the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and its tragic fire. The building stands as the ultimate symbol of French Catholicism, of that there can be no doubt. But the blaze that raged during the Monday of Holy Week will be interpreted in ways both fanciful and apocalyptic. As Freud might say, sometimes a fire is just a fire. And yet, one can’t help but see the timing of the conflagration as worthy of a bit of allegorical interpretation: no other time of year presents us so starkly with the image of passion and death.
As I viewed the footage on Monday and saw the flames engulf the cathedral, as I watched the church’s iconic spire succumb to the blaze, I could not help but get a bit emotional, filled with shock, disbelief, and sadness.
Part of my sense of loss was personal, and goes back to the summer of 2008 when my family, at the beginning of our pilgrimage to Lourdes to share in the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s final apparition to St. Bernadette, spent several days in Paris. One of my most cherished photos is of Kevin – totally bald and exhausted from the effects of chemotherapy, Mary Kate, and me standing in front of Notre Dame.
As we toured the inside of the cathedral, despite its vastness, the sheer height of the walls and a ceiling that felt to be a mile above our heads, I could not help but be constantly drawn to the black and white checkerboard of the floor. St. Thomas Aquinas spent a good part of his career as a professor at the University of Paris, and so one question kept running through my head: Am I standing where Aquinas once stood? As someone who has done his best to walk in the Angelic Doctor’s intellectual footsteps the possibility of retracing his actual footsteps was a bit overwhelming.
I lit one candle at Notre Dame – at a small side candle stand dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Believing that the “little way” of St. Thérèse was the path that I was meant to walk in this life, I sought her intercession in a special way on that July afternoon. Little did I know that in two years’ time my daughter would choose the Little Flower as her confirmation patron saint – so two favors from one candle (a well spent Euro).
I am sure that I am not alone in my belief that Notre Dame is not just another building, but a great symbol of the communion of heaven and earth. Ann believes – and I agree with her – that there are places on this earth that are special portals of God’s grace, places where a holy presence feels so strong that it is almost palpable. I felt it at Lourdes, and I felt it at Notre Dame.
France is commonly called “the eldest daughter of the Church” because of her ancient adherence to the Faith, and France is rich in universally recognized signs of its Catholic heritage: Chartres Cathedral, the Grotto at Lourdes, Mont St. Michel, the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, and so many others. Yet the jewel in the French Catholic crown is Our Lady of Paris.
During the French Revolution this archetypal symbol of French Catholicism was desecrated by the enemies of the Faith – then, as now, the adherents of the Enlightenment, who rededicated the cathedral to the “Cult of Reason,” while the patronage of the Virgin Mary was replaced with that of the “Goddess of Liberty.” But since the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, Notre Dame was restored by (of all people) Napoleon in the early 1800s.
Today, in the wake of Monday’s devastation, we once again see the desire to restore to the Church, both French and Universal, this most important structure, and the generosity on display is truly overwhelming. In the Middle Ages, churches like Notre Dame were built through the generous effort of thousands of people over numerous generations. These churches stood as a unifying symbol of a city, a country, a culture, a Faith. Let us pray that the restoration of this majestic tribute to the Mother of God will once more rekindle that same unifying and Catholic vision.