“We have been dealt a knockout blow.” That was how Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris described the massive fire that nearly destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris April 15.
Coming at the start of Holy Week, during what was already a long Lent for Catholics as the Church faces the sexual-abuse crisis, the fire also followed a wave of attacks on Catholic churches throughout France.
And yet, even as the fire raged, there were hints that the calamity could help rekindle the Christian faith in France: The outpouring of emotion at what was lost of the 850-year-old cathedral provided a glimpse into the spiritual longings of the hearts and souls of the French people, even though in large part they have long abandoned the practice of Catholicism. And the immediate and widespread determination to rebuild might offer a chance to re-establish what Notre Dame truly symbolizes: the central place of God in our lives and our civilization.
Rebuilding will necessitate the cooperation of the Church and the French state, which actually owns the cathedral, and this creates an opportunity for dialogue on the role of faith in French and European life. This dialogue won’t be easy. The Cathedral of Notre Dame has for centuries been emblematic of the tension between Church and state.
Notre Dame endured France’s Wars of Religion in the 16th century, desecration by the French Revolution — when it was converted in 1793 into a “Temple of Reason” — the self-coronation of Napoleon in 1804 in front of an aghast Pope Pius VII, two world wars, and the threat of Islamist terror in the 21st century.
Even now, as recovery and reconstruction get underway, it endures simultaneously as a symbol of culture, art and, above all, a living monument to the Age of Faith and the great history of the Church in the development of European civilization.
In a speech after the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron called the cathedral “the epicenter of our life.” More than 1 billion euros have been pledged already to fund the reconstruction.
Yet will the reconstruction of Notre Dame preserve the genius of its builders who toiled for two centuries not to celebrate their architectural creation but to honor the Almighty Creator?
When Notre Dame eventually reopens, it must not be as a museum, as an architectural masterpiece or as a cultural monument, as so many secular-minded voices have advocated in the fire’s immediate aftermath.
The priceless relics and artworks will be restored; but important as they are, they are not why Notre Dame is so significant and why it must be rebuilt.
Archbishop Aupetit said it best. In a television interview, the shepherd of Paris asked, “Why was this beauty built? What jewel was this case meant to contain? Not the Crown of Thorns … but a piece of bread that we believe is the Body of Christ.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict understands this reality. In his recent essay on the context of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, the 92-year-old theologian called attention to the spiritual roots of the crisis and its solution.
“A world without God,” he wrote, “can only be a world without meaning. For where, then, does everything that is come from? In any case, it has no spiritual purpose. … Only if things have a spiritual reason, are intended and conceived — only if there is a Creator God who is good and wants the good — can the life of man also have meaning. That there is God as creator and as the measure of all things is first and foremost a primordial need.”
The golden cross, standing after the fire in the ravaged cathedral, is the indelible image that affirms Pope Benedict’s wisdom. We now must work to ensure that the waves of emotion that flooded across France as the flames were being doused can also help wash away the formidable barriers against faith in God that have been erected in so many modern hearts and minds.
Our plea must be: Let Notre Dame be a Temple to God, not a Temple to Culture.