And yet Notre Dame is my church, and a mother church for any who have stood beneath her wheeling Rose windows or caught a first glimpse of her buttressed towers from across the Seine. The Cathedral of Paris is the mother church, much as St. Peter’s is the father church, of Christendom and Western Civilization. A few years ago, I had a five-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle, which they call the “Paris Airport.” In fact, it’s a good hour on the fast train from downtown, but I figured I would have 45 minutes in Paris if I got through the immigration lines quickly. I went straight to Notre Dame, wandering through the semi-darkness, reading memorial wall plaques from 1163, watching young people make their confessions to priests waiting in the cathedral’s curious glass confessionals, peering into the smoked glass reliquary of the crown of thorns. And of course, standing before the great North Rose, feeling as if I were falling into eternity.
Rachel Fulton Brown asks the question: why should we rebuild Notre Dame? Restoration donations have almost exceeded $1 billion, and we certainly have the technology. France’s agnostic President confidently declares the national monument will be rebuilt “more beautiful than ever” within five years. But can we build what the Faith of our Fathers built? Can we do what the medieval masons and glazing artisans did without their love for God, for Our Lady, for the Gospels they so winningly portrayed in glass and stone? “In the middle ages, it wasn’t the building of stone, glass, and wood that mattered,” Fulton writes. “It was the worship offered therein.” The most ordinary parish church becomes beautiful when people pray within it. Only faith in God and love for his Church can restore Notre Dame’s essential beauty. The burning of this monument is a national referendum for France: are we still Christian enough to rebuild a Catholic church?
We priests have the unspeakable privilege of leading our communities in the Paschal Triduum over these next three days. While the highest liturgies of Christian worship will not take place in Paris’ cathedral this year, they will in every simple parish church, and in the modernist Cathedral here in San Francisco. What makes our lives beautiful is not stone and glass, but the depth of our prayer to God, the leap of the heart that looks up and into God, who is beauty itself. We all hope that Notre Dame can recover her essential beauty, but that beauty is ours for the asking right in our little parish churches, or even in our own rooms, if we enter deeply into the mysteries of these next three days.