The Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire Isn't a Sign

Catholics love churches. Even when our architecture is less than excellent—this includes churches that also seem to look rather traditional—we nonetheless love them. We love them because in these places our babies were baptized; we married our spouses; we celebrated the Eucharist week after week, day after day, offering that sacrifice of praise that offers to humanity the hope that divine love alone saves.

Yesterday we all, not Catholics only, gazed with absolute horror as we saw Notre-Dame de Paris nearly burn down. To a certain extent, popular media covered this out of a sense of nostalgia.

This building, immortalized in our imaginations, would never exist precisely as it once did. We would never enter the dark, Gothic building again. We will never see the spire, even if a late addition, again. We will never see the cathedral's wooden frame, the brilliant lattice work that brought us back to our medieval forebears. The landscape of Paris would once again be changed. No one, not one, would see the cityscape of Paris like we did--although the miracle of the whole thing, as it turns out, is that so much did survive.

Of course, the destruction of churches is not a novelty in human history. Historians of architecture are painfully aware that churches burn. Notre-Dame is not the first important architectural monument to be ruined in a fire. We do not need to return to some archaic past to recognize the possibility of destruction of ecclesial spaces.

In 1984, the south transept of York Minster burned after a lightning strike. It was reconstructed in the intervening years, but we lost something. We lost not just a space but also a place. A place where men and women long before us had come to adore Jesus Christ, to baptize their kids and to get married. We re-built it, using the very same stones, but it was different. The memory of our confreres was written in those stones. It was a memory that connected us not just to some distant past, a nostalgic memory of what we once were but to the very communion of saints. It was our beloved dead, those who had received the Gospel and passed it on to the next generation, who prayed there. They kneeled and adored there. And now, we too could. We did.

This haunted memory of salvation, embodied in living stones, could never be obliterated by the specter of secularization. Yes, fewer and fewer people went to the church (although many more in recent days) to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice in the same way that Saint Genevieve did. Yes, the Mass that I attended at Notre-Dame in Paris in November of 2002 was celebrated by but a handful of elderly French, who were icons of a fidelity that has sustained the Church through trying times.

But, there was something about the space that attracted even secular pilgrims, those who wandered around the sanctuary, eyes open to the possible. Notre-Dame remains the “great perhaps” in the middle of a city, the great perhaps that reminds all of us that the Gospel is not an abstract proposition. It is here. Right here. In the middle of Paris. Just open your eyes. At Notre-Dame, it was almost impossible not to, even for those who believed they had passed beyond such superstitious nonsense.

So, that is why at least this Catholic, and I am not alone, is mourning the loss of at least part of Notre-Dame. Of course, a good Catholic knows that nothing lasts forever. We know that the stones where we worship, the places where we adore the living God, will all pass away. But, I saw in this cathedral, in the heart of Paris, in the very space where Adam of St. Victor first composed sequences, in the place where countless pilgrims offered the Eucharistic sacrifice of their lives, a connection to a past that is part of who I am.

It is a past that gets me closer to the very event of salvation, the event where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Catholics, after all, are products of what Danielle Hervieu-Leger has called a chain of memory, a chain that connects us not just to our ancestors from 100 years before but to the apostles. Catholics may be agnostic about sacred spaces, consecrating Paris, France to Christ just as much as South Bend, Indiana. But we are very serious about sacred places, those moments in history where divine love has revealed itself in the communion of saints who have preceded us. Catholics love churches. Because—as it turns out—we love the Christ who has entered radically into history, who has decided to save us here and now in a place.

For Catholics, churches are not reducible to a well-arranged construction of stones, brick, or concrete as is often the current fashion. Rather, churches “become” in the moment of consecration something sacramental, a living image of Christ’s very Body. In new churches, walls and altars are anointed with oil, they are blessed with holy water just as we might baptize a newborn babe. An excess of candlelight shines into darkness, and the darkness does not conquer. Baptismal fonts are blessed, becoming spaces where new Christians will be born into life eternal.

Yes, we know that every aspect of these spaces may be destroyed. In fact, if human history continues for long enough, every one of them will be demolished through the vicissitudes of existence. But for a moment, these places manifest to us the profound beauty of the Incarnation—that the Word has become flesh, so enfleshed, that human beings will experience the gift of salvation through immersion into this place, this baptismal font, this Eucharistic altar, this organ, this rose window, this place. This place is treated by Catholics as akin to a body, Christ’s Body.

Of course, the enfleshment of the Word in churches also means that culture is transformed. After all, it is not Christians alone who mourn the loss, or at least the partial loss, of Notre-Dame. It is all humankind, who see in this place of French Catholicism, an image of their own identity—however forgotten it may be. A certain kind of cultural warrior will turn the burning of Notre-Dame into a parable for French Catholicism, of a European Catholicism that was far too “revolutionary” and now must suffer the consequences of its own ecclesial malfeasance. The conflagration of the sacred place will become an allegory for secularization, for a Parisian church that has forgotten her identity as l’eglise de Geneviève et de Jean-d’Arc.

But perhaps, it is not so easy to forget one’s identity. Perhaps, the myth of secularization is just that—a myth constructed by a certain elite class who want Catholicism to disappear. It is a myth that human beings will ever be able to forget the haunting memory of the Word made flesh, the resurrected Lord, who offers to humanity a new horizon for what is possible. It is a myth too often taken up by Catholics whose pessimism is marked more by a certain version of sociology than the lived faith of men and women that cannot be so easily snuffed out. In the midst of this supposed forgetfulness, there is the in-breaking of a remembered Catholicism—one represented by Charles Péguy, Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Falque, et plus. It is also the Catholicism, however fragmentary, of Emmanuel Macron who has pledged to reconstruct Notre-Dame once more. It is the Catholicism of thousands of French young people who gathered in the streets of Paris to sing hymns of praise once more to the Virgin Mary.

Notre-Dame may have been on fire but the public sphere, so marked by a program of supposed laïcité, remembers. Paris remembers the voice of countless pilgrims who have sung such hymns of praise on her streets before. And they will sing again. Paris remembers. How could she not? And in this moment, Paris once more reminded us of the reason for her hope. The reason for this hope is a woman, a woman who is Our Lady, who carries within her womb the sole hope of the human race--the Word made flesh.

Thus, we must mourn Notre-Dame du Paris. For her very stones have been singed, burned by a fire that we have created—after all, we human beings do eventually destroy all things. She represented to us Catholics, to us human beings, an image of heaven. This is what it looked like when blue glass transfigured creation, an icon of the beatific light that we would one day enjoy as members of the communion of saints. This is what sounded like when heaven would sing hymns of praise. This strange confluence of intimacy and transcendent height is as close as we might get to heaven until we enjoy the beatific vision.

But, our mourning cannot become hopeless. Those who see the burning of Notre-Dame as some sign, metaphor, or parable for the loss of Catholic culture, an icon of a lost era, have forgotten the central mystery of Christian faith—the death and resurrection of Christ. During Holy Week, we remember that love enters into the darkest of spaces, those spaces seemingly most desolate, and bears new life. The body of Christ dies on Good Friday. Not metaphorically but really, entirely, totally. It is the body of our Savior, the quick and vital flesh of the Lord that ceases to breathe upon the cross. Yet, it is this very same body, this very same flesh that is raised from the dead by the Father, announcing the resurrection to that now beloved saint of France, Mary Magdalene. He is the one risen from the dead, shining light into the midst of the darkness.

Notre-Dame, if the world lasts long enough, will be built again. But more importantly, so will a world inspired by Christian hope. For the Gospel of Easter proclaims the fundamental hope that human history, no matter how we warp it is nonetheless forever changed. The faith of Easter is that Christ is risen from the dead. This is not an abstract hope, a Pollyannish sense that it is going to be all right if we just take up the right attitude. Whatever the French are, they are not American optimists—for this, we are all grateful.

Rather, it is the hope that out of the greatest sorrow, out of the greatest destruction human beings can bring upon both human history and the cosmos, light conquers darkness. God has entered into human history in such a way that the telos of this history is resurrection, the radical hope that love conquers death. The cooling flame of love conquers fires and destruction. It quells the chaos, orders it toward its ultimate destiny. After all, wasn’t it the Resurrection of our Lord in the first place that forever transformed that island in the middle of Paris into the most sacred of places?

Notre-Dame has not disappeared, at least not yet. The towers stand. The contours of the place remain. But one day, these too might disappear. With it will go, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Patrick’s in New York, and even the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. Nothing that is contingent, no matter how beautiful lasts forever. In fact, the partial loss of Notre-Dame de Paris is a reminder to each of us during Holy Week of the contingency of existence. That which is most beautiful is also that which will be consumed by fire, destroyed by worms, that which disappears. But the gift of Easter is that while contingency is very real, it is not the defining dimension of human existence.

Resurrection faith hopes for more. The Resurrection dares and ventures to hope that that which is most contingent, that which seems most precarious will be the site of new life. The sinner with the hardest of hearts may return to God. The culture that most adores death may worship life. The dawn comes, whether the darkness likes it or not.

Notre-Dame burned. When rebuilt, it will burn again. But as long as human beings live, as long as we build churches on islands, in cities, in rural villages, we will erect places where the hope of the Resurrection defeats death. We will erect sites of memory, of hope that transform the contours of civilization.

On Easter Sunday, I have no doubt that the scattered assembly of Notre-Dame will gather before what is an uninhabited building. Likely, there will be more than normal, French Catholics who have not darkened the doors of a church for years. They will gather not to mourn the loss of what was, although you cannot blame them for some sorrow, but to announce the Good News that Christ is risen. He is risen, forever changing human history. They will sing hymns, and the stones will join in. Even those burnt stones, those fallen stones, those stones still smoking, have a song worth singing.

Catholics love churches. But they love the reason for their existence even more. It is Christ, who has built up the Church into a living body, a temple of gathered stones made for praise. It is Christ who promises new life, new hope, newness. It is Christ who has forever transformed human history, who has not just built churches but the whole communion of saints into his living, breathing body.

Notre-Dame will be rebuilt and so will the Church, which generation after generation seems to be addicted to a new scandal, a new way of destroying herself. And perhaps, this is the only parable we should take from the conflagration of Notre-Dame. The Church will continue to be rebuilt, generation after generation, by those who believe that Jesus is the Lord not of just one time, one epoch, but all of history.

Notre Dame, notre mère, la mère de Jésus, priere pour nous.

Featured Image: Olivier MabellyNotre-Dame de Paris fire, taken on 4/15/19; Source:, CC BY-NC 2.0


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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