Wednesday, April 15, 2020

One Year after the Fire

One year ago today, on the Monday of Holy Week, April 15, 2019, a mammoth fire burned through the roof of Paris’s medieval Notre Dame Cathedral, among other things collapsing the cathedral’s famous 19th-century spire. Thankfully, some precious relics were salvaged from the destruction, including the Crown of Thorns, brought to Paris by Saint Louis IX in the 13th century and traditionally venerated every Friday in Lent. This year, the Archbishop of Paris returned the relic to the cathedral and venerated it in a widely televised, simple but moving Good Friday morning ceremony.

Notre Dame has been inseparably linked with the identity and history of France, "the eldest daughter of the Church." Through the centuries the trials and tribulations of the French Church - themselves exemplars of the trials and tribulations of both the Universal Church and the European civilization the Church created - have been Notre Dame's. In 1548, for example, Huguenots destroyed some statues. The cathedral was more thoroughly desecrated by the French Revolution, which rededicated it to "Reason" in 1793 and then turned it into a warehouse. Napoleon restored its religious, Catholic character and then crowned himself Emperor there in 1804. General Charles De Gaulle attended a triumphant Te Deum there on August 26, 1944, to give thanks for the liberation of Paris from the German occupation (even while sporadic gun shots rang out, both outside and within the great cathedral)..

Last year's fire was yet another tragic blow to that sacred place, as well as an incalculable blow to our Western cultural heritage. Our post-modern, secular society aptly expresses its spiritual emptiness and its inhuman ugliness in its soul-destroying inhumane ugly buildings, reflecting the diminished character of contemporary human aspiration. The age of the great cathedrals was limited and imperfect in many ways, but at least it directed human hearts and minds to look upward as opposed to our contemporary preoccupation primarily with our petty selves.

At the time, the fire seemed like one more disconnected calamity in this era of accumulating natural disasters and human-made tragedies. The present pandemic has focused our attention as none of those other disasters and tragedies have as yet been able to do. Some have ventured to see in the present pandemic a concentrated apocalyptic experience, a fast-forward into the destructive disruption approaching around the historical corner in the form of climate change. If nothing else, it has dramatically undercut the business-as-usual mentality that apocalypse cannot happen here, cannot happen to us.

A year ago, the French made a commitment to rebuild and restore Notre Dame, that precious symbol of faith and civilization. A year later, the whole world is being challenged to recommit to civilization itself through a renewed commitment to rebuild and restore a society whose fundamental failings have been so powerfully exposed by the present pandemic.

What kind of renewed faith will such a commitment require?

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