“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28.17)
Joining people from all over the world, I watched with horror and sadness yesterday as Notre Dame burned. There was a time in my life that I had many opportunities to be in Paris. Twice, I had the privilege of going to Notre Dame at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday of Lent for the veneration of the Crown of Thorns.
There is always a long line of tourists queued and waiting to visit this vast 850-year-old monument to Christian faith and civilization, but if you know the way you can bypass the crowds by going to one of the doors and saying to the guard, “la couronne d’epine.” There is no wait. You are welcomed past the crowds of tourists to join the faithful in waiting for the procession to enter the church carrying the instruments of the passion, then beautiful singing, readings, and prayers, and then at last the opportunity to kiss the holy crown that adorned the sacred head of Jesus as he walked to his crucifixion on Calvary.
I suppose it is a part of human imagination that we seek out symbolic meaning in events that happen around us, especially events as tragic and profound as the burning of this historic center of Christianity during Holy Week. The state of the Church is on many of our minds these days.
The drone photos of fire outlined by the walls of the cathedral were like an eerie architectural drawing of the cruciform shape of a medieval cathedral – walls standing, interior churning with fire. Yesterday evening it looked as if all would be lost.
This morning we have learned that the walls will stand. The crown of thorns was saved along with some other valuable relics and artifacts. Even the great organ and glorious rose windows have miraculously survived the intense heat from the fire. The fire attacked, burned, and destroyed plenty, but the edifice stands and will be rebuilt. Just as the body of Notre Dame was pierced and attacked by fire, the Body of Christ will endure all of her many trials and remain standing until the end of time.
Faith is both personal and communal. As Catholics, the history of the Church is our birthright. Glorious cathedrals like Notre Dame are our home. It is mine, and it is yours. I was able to pass through the doors of Notre Dame to venerate the crown of thorns because it is my patrimony. I know the way in. Once inside I joined hundreds of others who also knew the way in, and together we remembered the tremendous gift of Our Lord’s passion on a Friday of Lent as we looked ahead to Holy Week and the joyful celebration of Easter.
One of the reasons that Barbara and Paul Henkels founded the Regina Academies was to introduce young people to their 2,000 years of Christian heritage. Notre Dame was built toward the end of what some call the “Dark Ages” as a tribute to Our Lady. An era that could produce a monument of faith as stunning as Notre Dame could not have been dark, but filled with the burning light of faith, just waiting for an opportunity to break free and to soar toward the heavens in glorious praise.
Deacon Chris Roberts, one of our friends at Martin Saints Classical High School, wrote beautifully yesterday of why the burning of Notre Dame matters, and it was this very point: Notre Dame is our patrimony and is an icon of the Christian West. Notre Dame is “a chapter in the story that makes us who we are.”
Learning the scope of history shows that Christian civilization seems to be on a repetitive cycle of neglect (sometimes even self-destruction) and renewal. Regina Academy students, and those involved in the broader return to Catholic classical liberal education, are part of the renewal of faith in our age. Our students are being taught to value their patrimony of faith along with its monuments that incarnate what is good, true, and beautiful.
Armed with the light of faith, these young people will lead the Church’s renewal and rebuild this awesome place. This Church that is the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
Notre Dame, priez pour nous!