What the Rooster, Pietà and Bees at Notre Dame Cathedral Tell Us

Three powerful symbolic lessons at Notre Dame are crying to be heard in the desert of faith in France and the West.

Nicolas Coustou’s “Descent From the Cross” in Notre Dame Cathedral
Nicolas Coustou’s “Descent From the Cross” in Notre Dame Cathedral (photo: Papertree, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rooster. The Pietà. The Bees. They are heralds announcing warnings and at the same time offering hope in the midst of the Notre Dame Cathedral tragedy.

What’s the Rooster that sat atop the soaring spire got to do with it? Remember, Jesus told Peter, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Was it a reminder how France, the “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” as she is called, has done similarly with its secular mindset over more than two centuries since the French Revolution?

The Latin word gallus means both “rooster” and “inhabitant of Gaul,” most of which became France. Even a French government site declares that in the Middle Ages, the Gallic Rooster was widely used as a religious symbol, the sign of hope and faith. By the Renaissance the rooster was “meant to stand for France.” The religious symbolism of the rooster helped amplify this “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” named so because it was the first western nation after Rome fell to fully embrace Catholicism.

But the last several decades have turned out what surely look like denials of the Lord before this Rooster “crowed” and fell.

A 2017 study found only 5% of the French attend Mass regularly. Practicing Catholics add up to only 1.2% of the population. A Pew Research Center study just released April 22 found out of 27 countries France ranked second from the bottom as 47% of those asked said they opposed a more important role for religion in their country. Only 25% said they favored a more important role.

Shortly before the cathedral fire, Pope Emeritus Benedict reflected: “A society without God — a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent — is a society that loses its measure…Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it. And that is why it is a society in which the measure of humanity is increasingly lost.”

Remember too that when Peter heard the rooster, he “remembered the word that Jesus had spoken” and “went out and began to weep bitterly.” He repented. Became the first pope. France can listen to this cathedral’s rooster which has been deemed “restorable,” and which holds relics of French saints Denis and Genevieve and one of the thorns from the crown of thorns, again weep, repent, return en masse to the Lord, in this case, through Notre Dame — Our Lady, the Blessed Mother. Not just the edifice itself but who the edifice stands for — and again shine as the “Eldest Daughter of the Church.”


The Pietà

Here’s where Notre Dame, Our Lady, again brings a message. We’ve seen the uplifting photo of the golden cross shining in the interior of the ravaged Notre Dame. But hardly have we seen the close-up of what is before the empty cross — empty because Jesus is now below the cross in the arms of his Mother Mary in the 1725 Pietà, called here, “Descent from the Cross.”

Our Blessed Mother grieves at what sin has done to her Son. This time can it be Our Lady mourns for what sin has done to faith? Can we comfort her just by rebuilding the edifice, or must France rebuilt something more?  As must the entire West because as Father Shenan Bouquet, president of Human Life International observed, “Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the Catholic Church in France. And France – the ‘eldest daughter of the Church’ – is in many respects the symbolic heart of the faith in Europe.”


The Bees in Church Life

Another amazing report came two days after the Notre Dame fire. The three hives numbering 180,000 bees installed at Notre Dame survived the conflagration. Everyone thought the bees perished. But no, they were alive. Surely, the had a message because bees and honey are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Their labors, especially beeswax, have always played a major role in the Church.

For a thumbnail sketch, the Psalms tell us, “If you eat honey, my son, because it is good, if pure honey is sweet to your taste, Such, you must know, is wisdom to your soul. If you find it, you will have a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (24:13-14). Sounds like the bees do have a message in this tragedy. Again, “But Israel I will feed with the finest wheat, I will satisfy them with honey from the rock” (Psalm 81:17).

The Church Fathers and spiritual writers like Sts. John Chrysostom and Teresa of Avila saw “holy wisdom” in bees. “[C]arry your eyes on the bee. Unabated, she works for the service of man as much as for her own use; this is the image of the Christian: he seeks less his interests than those of others,” he said. In quiet prayer the will should enjoy tranquil union with God and “be as recollected as the wise little bee,” she said. Two foods are what we’re told John the Baptist ate — one of them being honey.

Notre Dame’s beekeeper Nicolas Geant told The Associated Press, “When bees sense fire, they gorge themselves on honey and stay to protect their queen, who doesn’t move.” They’re steadfast, as we should be, in protecting our faith and the Queen, Our Lady honored in the cathedral named after her.

Bees also provide necessities for Mass — beeswax for candles. After the fire, at the Holy Saturday Vigil we heard sung in the Exsultet: “On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God's honor…is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.”

Remember how Jesus identified himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Blessed candles in all worship must be made of beeswax, or at least 51% beeswax because the purity or “virginity of bees is insisted on, and the wax is therefore regarded as typifying in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother.” The wick symbolizes the soul of Christ and the flame his Divinity.

Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, describes the candle’s symbolism at Candlemas: “The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus…The candle-lit procession, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should…give us courage to see the supernatural…as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.”

The pure beeswax candles also symbolize the purity and chastity of the Blessed Mother.

Venerable Pope Pius XII gave an address “On Bees” to the apiarists of Italy in 1948.

The Holy Father reflected: “Ah, if men could and would listen to the lesson of the bees: if each one knew how to do his daily duty with order and love at the post assigned to him by Providence; if everyone knew how to enjoy, love, and use in the intimate harmony of the domestic hearth the little treasures accumulated away from home during his working day: if men, with delicacy, and to speak humanly, with elegance, and also, to speak as a Christian, with charity in their dealings with their fellow men, would only profit from the truth and the beauty conceived in their minds, from the nobility and goodness carried about in the intimate depths of their hearts, without offending by indiscretion and stupidity, without soiling the purity of their thought and their love, if they only knew how to assimilate without jealousy and pride the riches acquired by contact with their brothers and to develop them in their turn by reflection and the work of their own minds and hearts; if, in a word, they learned to do by intelligence and wisdom what bees do by instinct — how much better the world would be!”

The bee’s “wisdom” provided a lesson in Christian living.


The Bees’ Further Lessons

The fire that lights the beeswax candle brings the light of Christ and Christian living to us. The fire at the cathedral, however, brought destruction as if to dim the light of Christ during Holy Week.

“The fire of Notre Dame is without doubt a powerful and stirring sign which God is giving to His Church in our day,” observed Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan. “This is a symbolic and highly evocative representation of what has happened in the life of the Church over the last 50 years, as people have witnessed a conflagration of the Church’s most precious spiritual masterpieces, i.e., the integrity and beauty of the Catholic Faith, the Catholic liturgy and Catholic moral life…”

Days before the fire, Pope Emeritus Benedict reflected in a similar way, then emphasized, “A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him. Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life.”

Yes, the cathedral should be rebuilt, but for what it was always intended to be. Benedict prophetically said, “Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”

That surely was echoed by what Father Jean-Marc Fournier, the priest who rushed into Notre Dame during the raging fire to rescue Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and piece of the True Cross, later said about rescuing the Eucharist first of all: “I sought to preserve above all the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here is another lesson from the bees. According to the Notre Dame Cathedral website, “Our Lady Of Paris, by hosting this hive, is fully associated with the preservation of dynamic biodiversity and thus wishes to recall the beauty of creation and the responsibility of man towards her,” the site said. “The presence of bees is a sign of good health of our environment and their preservation is also saving the planet.”

But the bees’ lesson here is not connected with secular “dynamic biodiversity” language. It’s connected with faith — protecting the hive, protecting the queen. Before Father Fournier left the burning cathedral, he stopped, blessed the church, asking Jesus to save “his home.” In any other circumstances the candles from bees would be lit.

That, noted Father Bouquet, “sums up what our response should be to the ‘spiritual conflagration’ in the Church: i.e. a single-minded devotion to Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, and a fearless resolve to stand fast and to hold to Christ in the midst of the destruction.”

The message is clear. France, and the West, must rescue the Blessed Sacrament in their lives by returning to the faith.

At the canonization of St. Joan of Arc on Dec. 13, 1908, St. Pius X was prophetic reminding how Gregory IX wrote King St. Louis: “God, to whom the heavenly legions obey… as before he preferred the tribe of Judah to those of the other sons of Jacob and gave it special blessings, thus he elected France in preference to all the other nations of the earth for the protection of the Catholic faith and for the defense of religious freedom. For this ‘France is the kingdom of God himself, the enemies of France are the enemies of Christ.’”

He further said to Bishop Stanislaus Touchet, Bishop of Orléans present there, “[Y]ou will tell your compatriots that, if they love France, they must love God, love the faith, love the Church which, like your fathers, is the mother of them all,” and listen to “the words so often repeated by their heroine of Orléans: Vive le Christ qui est roi des Francs.”

Pius X’s prophetic words and this fire’s wake-up call should shake the “eldest daughter of the Church” and West to rebuild the faith — “Curds and honey he will eat so that he may learn to reject evil and choose” (Isaiah 7:15) — then France and the West can again become “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:16) of the True Faith.

Remember, Benedict XVI said that “first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.” The bees, too, remind us of Exodus 16:31 that manna, prefiguring the Holy Eucharist, “was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers made with honey.”