There are few sights like a church on fire. The fire which raged from the roof of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on the evening of April 15, 2019 was different: thanks be to God that it (at this time of writing) does not appear to be caused by anything more than renovation negligence and that no one was killed in the blaze. The evening of the fire, the attention of the world focused on the smoke billowing above the Parisian skyline as first responders battled the flames to save the most iconic church in France. In the scenes broadcast from the River Seine, I not only saw the intensity of the fire that toppled the historic spire, but I also observed the more subtle fanning of the embers of a faith long thought to be extinguished in the hearts of the French people.
Watching a tragedy stirs up strong emotions within even the most hardened of hearts. Many scenes of prayers being offered or sacred hymns being sung—despite perhaps intense feelings of helplessness—were reported by passers-by, pilgrims, and tourists alike. Furthermore, support was expressed around the world for the Church and her members in France. The sight of the beautiful cathedral of the capital city apparently being irreparably damaged was a very sad one indeed, especially during Holy Week. The many treasures at risk included the Most Holy Eucharist and relics of Christ’s Passion. Different people took different meanings from that incredible sight: many were shaking their heads and crying at the destruction of a landmark cultural icon, others mourned the apparent loss of a grand local spiritual refuge, and some saw a Church which has long suffered against secularism appear in danger of collapse.
Here’s what I observed: seeing a church burning on live television is indeed a heart-stopping scene, but I am—and dare I say God is—more interested in seeing hearts burn within a person! Seeing a man fully alive and in touch with his values, faith, or beliefs rather than suppressing them when inconvenient or unpopular is inspiring and a great witness. The voices of the people in Paris were publically lifted in singing ancient hymns and prayers for the salvation of the physical church building and the Catholic Church overall. Secularism has long been taking root in France, so seeing this active and public embrace of faith was incredibly touching. In times of despair or tragedy, people have been historically observed to seek sanctuary and emotional healing in churches and places of worship. Just think of cities in Europe, at risk of invasion or disease, in which people flocked to pray together for deliverance or divine mercy. Even in the United States after 9/11 and other heinous acts of violence, the churches with formerly empty pews were crowded with voices raised together in hopeful prayer to counter bowed heads of sorrow. As Christians we do not mourn like those who have no hope, but even in our sadness we can lift our eyes to God, breathe to calm ourselves, and confidently pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
From these collective acts of faith, the hope of spiritual renewal can be strong. The seeds of faith instilled in youth but unnourished later in life may suddenly be rediscovered and re-cultivated by God’s grace and perhaps the shock of the sudden end of the status quo. Intense personal reflection and the reevaluation of priorities may ensue to further sustain spiritual growth and comfort. Imagine the state of the Church had the apostles not been inflamed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as those followers of Christ rediscovered God in the Upper Room thousands of years ago, so too can we encounter the fire of the Holy Spirit to bring light to the confused, healing to the broken, and peace to the conflicted. The fires of faith have not been extinguished, as we have beautifully seen, but rather the embers are still hot and glowing, just needing to be stirred up again to blaze towards Heaven. As Pope Francis tweeted, let us “unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction. Holy Mary, Our Lady, pray for us.”
May Notre-Dame, our Blessed Mother, pray for us!