NOTRE DAME IS IN FLAMES. The spire has gone; the roof has collapsed. It appears no one has died—Deo gratias—which is a real mercy. The cause is as yet unknown but no doubt we shall no soon enough. The recent spate of attacks on churches in France hangs heavier in the air tonight, but this incident may merely be due to a fault in the current renovation work. It is hard not to dismiss a terrorist attack but by now surely some extremist would be claiming credit for it.
The passion of Notre Dame matters not just for Paris, nor just for France, nor for those who merely love beauty. It matters for our Judaeo-Christian civilization.
It is about a gorgeous gem of Gothic architecture more than 8 centuries old, but it is more than about that. It is about the wonderful works of art and craft within its walls—a stunning Pietà; statues of the 28 kings of Israel; an immense rose window with exquisite stained glass—but it is about more than these. It is about the role and status of the cathedral in the history of France, but it is about more than that. It is about a testament to humanity’s fertile, fruitful and beautiful devotion to God, but it is about more even than that.
On the CBS live coverage on Youtube, a reporter mentioned that a Parisian had told him that the fire has a symbolic significance for Christianity in France and Europe.
Medieval cathedrals such as Notre Dame were designed in part to be visual, iconographic catechisms for a largely illiterate population. Most people could not read the Bible let alone have afforded a copy of it, but in the cathedral the great biblical narratives were unfolded before them, as too the teachings of Christ, the example of the saints, the virtues and vices, enticing visions of heaven and chilling visions of hell. In the cathedrals the great liturgies of the Church’s year were celebrated before rich and poor alike, and in them they beheld a living exposition of faith and salvation, and the presence of God in a fallen world, offering a living tableau that fed faith, hope, and charity.
But even more, in our day such cathedrals seem to be the last voices proclaiming an unsullied, uninhibited Christianity, thus far free from the restrictions on Christian faith and preaching increasingly being visited upon the Church’s ministers and faithful by an increasingly aggressive secularism in western society, and elsewhere. What we did hear only yesterday in the Passion according to St Luke:
Will these stones fall silent too? If these stones do fall silent, then the call is clear to us to speak louder than they ever did, though with more charity than they ever could.
If these stones should not fall totally silent, the challenge remains the same. How vulnerable is the Church’s witness to the world at this time, and it is up to faithful Christians to revive it, with God’s indispensable help. As I type, Martin Bashir on the BBC is briefly outlining the state of the Church and Christian faith in France, a tragic and sobering story. Then again, Parisians are crying on the streets and one hopes that perhaps this more than merely for the loss of a cultural and national icon. We need today more than merely cultural Catholics.
The passion of Christ was the necessary precursor to his resurrection. The passion of Notre Dame may mark a death that also, Deo volente, leads to a resurrection not just for the edifice of the cathedral but for the edifice of Christian faith and culture in the west. God will not let his Church fail, but he has not promised it will survive in Europe and the west. If it is God’s will that it does survive here, then it will likely only be with our cooperation, not without it.
It is Holy Week and tonight one seems to hear even louder than usual,
Anyway, that is what has struck me tonight.