Rebuilding Notre Dame will be a challenge for a France so proud of its modernity.
Notre Dame is to the French identity much more than the World Trade Centers were to American commerce or the Pentagon to American power. The cathedral of Paris is more than even Windsor Castle is to the royal Family, where the British bury their kings and queens. So the (partial) destruction of Notre Dame is more devastating than the destruction of those buildings, though less so at the same time because there was no loss of life
Just last week, I wrote here about the Louvre and the great Leonardo da Vinci treasures it holds. And now, the greatest treasure of France, Notre Dame de Paris, has burned.
What burned in Paris this Holy Week? Principally a church, the great church of the French people, their culture, their heritage, their nation—none of which can be understood apart from the Catholic faith, even if that faith itself has been battered and abandoned over the years, and today.
Notre Dame, over its eight centuries, has seen dark days. Some commentators got it wrong yesterday when they said this was the worst day in its nearly millennial history. No, the worst days were during the French revolution, when the cathedral was desecrated, turned into a sacrilegious temple to the "goddess of reason" by the first bloodthirsty totalitarians of the modern age. The fires of hell burn much hotter than the fire in Paris on Monday.
Now all of France is pledging its loyalty to Notre Dame, with the French president in the first place promising that it will be rebuilt. Wealthy French families pledged close to a billion Canadian dollars in the first 24 hours. That is just and right, but the reality is that the fire reminded France that it has long neglected Notre Dame. The urgent restoration works currently underway were done on an uncertain financial foundation, with neither the church, nor the government, nor the philanthropic sector equal to the task. Sometimes you don't know what you have until it is (almost) gone.
Notre Dame is not only for France. It belongs, as Pope Francis said on Tuesday, to the "patrimony of all humanity." More particular, it is the mother church of the entire Francophone world.
Is the faith sufficiently strong in France today to rebuild? Are they capable of what their ancestors built, over three centuries, in a medieval profusion of scientific and artistic creativity?
In 1823, one of the largest churches in europe, St. Paul's Basilica in rome, built over the tomb of the Apostle Paul, was severely damaged in a fire, some 1,500 years after its original construction. The fire was started by a workman on the roof; a similar incident might be the cause of the fire at Notre Dame. But I first thought that it was a deliberate attack, because in recent weeks more than a dozen French churches have been vandalized and desecrated. St. Sulpice—the second largest church in Paris—had its front door set ablaze by an arsonist less than a month ago. It seems that the Notre Dame fire was an accident, but investigators must not assume that. Violence against Catholic churches is becoming something of an epidemic in France.
St. Paul's in Rome was rebuilt and re-consecrated in 1855, after countries all over the world made contributions. The Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, a Muslim, sent precious pillars of alabaster, and the empress of russia, an Orthodox Christian, sent the malachite and lapis lazuli for the tabernacle. It would be fitting if the entire francophone made their own contributions. The government of Quebec should be first in line, an offering which could double as a penance for its recent anti-religious aggression.
When news came that the heroic chaplain of the fire brigade rushed into the burning cathedral to rescue the Eucharist—the very presence of God for which such cathedrals are built—and the precious relics, I thought of a Quebec hero. In 1966, the residence of the Quebec lieutenant-governor, Paul Comtois, was consumed by a raging fire. Comtois, a devout Catholic, had a chapel in the residence and, after seeing his family to safety, made his way through the fire to remove the Eucharist from the chapel. He made it to the tabernacle and removed the Blessed Sacrament, but died as he left the upper floor, the stairway collapsing around him. He burned to death as a martyr for the eucharist.
That is the faith of which Notre Dame de Paris is the maternal cradle and monumental expression. Is the faith sufficiently strong in France today to rebuild? Are they capable of what their ancestors built, over three centuries, in a medieval profusion of scientific and artistic creativity?
Notre Dame is now a test for a France so proud of its modernity, a civilization so proud of its progress, a world so proud of its power. Can we do now what they did then?
A great building—and no building in France was greater than Notre Dame—tells us the story of the people who built it, and which, in turn, it shapes. Victor Hugo, whose 19th-century novels helped spur interest in the neglected cathedral, wrote words that are a challenge to France this Holy Week:
"The greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of a community; are rather the offspring of a nation's labour than the outcome of individual genius; the deposit of a whole people; the heaped-up treasure of centuries; the residuum left by the successive evaporations of human society," Hugo wrote. "each wave of time leaves its coating of alluvium, each race deposits its layers on the monuments, each individual contributes his stone to it."
Does the 21st century have any worthy stones to contribute?
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A great test awaits." National Post, (Canada) April 17, 2019.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2019 National Post
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