For a very short while, I lived just down the street from Notre Dame Cathedral, and I didn’t always like it.
It was old. Dark. Crowded. The kind of place that tourists throng through on rainy days, traipsing Parisian mud over hundreds of years of art and architecture. I almost never went. But it was there, an immovable, nearly immortal vision at the end of my block that reminded me not just of my temporary home’s history, but of man’s capacity for beauty. In all the ugliness of our world, Notre Dame stood as a testament that man could do something good; that in our short human lives, we could create timeless beauty even as we are passing away.
I have stood in some of the greatest structures in the world. One fall, I sang in the choir at the Vatican, and crawled through the quiet places of St. Peter’s Basilica — the secret archives, the music room, the sacristy, even the broom closests (home to the tombs of a few poor, forgotten Popes) — but nothing ever made me feel quite the way Notre Dame did, especially when the sun broke through the monstrous Rose Window, an unmistakeable reminder of heaven even when God’s voice in my life wasn’t particularly clear.
When I watched the video of the spire falling this morning, I could feel it breaking my heart into a million pieces inside me. That reminder was gone.
And that’s why Notre Dame must be rebuilt.
Because now, more than ever, we need a reminder that art, that beauty, and most of all, that faith, transcend human error. At a time when the Catholic Church needs unity, rebuilding one of our great structures — the historical home of the Crown of Thornes, and the site of so much of our history — may be the one way that we can recommit to facing the trials at present and ahead together.
Make no mistake, the Church is under attack, both from within and without. All Christianity is. All people of good faith are. The Catholic Church is struggling with fractures that threaten to rip the Church apart.
Across the globe, Catholics are trying to process the betrayals of Church leaders who abused members of their flocks. In the United States, we’re struggling to understand how our Cardinals could abuse seminiarians — young priests — for decades without facing consequences. Just last week, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issued a letter laying bare how the Church’s own hierarchy had failed to protect its members, and had encouraged, and in some cases even fostered, a culture among its clergy that put the faithful in direct danger.
We can’t agree on anything. Not on how to move forward. Not on how to address the past. But broken and at odds with each other over trivial, human matters, people of faith become vulnerable to the forces of evil. The Devil sneaks in and foments our anger toward each other. It makes us weaker as people and the Church weaker as a protective core of civilization and ethics. We need strong religious organizations, and strong religions, to withstand the challenges of the modern world, to preserve what’s right and to oppose what’s wrong.
Without faith, the whims of the culture erode us. We can see it happening all around us.
Whatever caused the fire at Notre Dame — and we will likely find out in the coming days — it happened at the beginning of Holy Week, one of the most sacred weeks in our calendar, and the yearly celebration of Christ’s death and His resurrection, and it should be a reminder that those of us who profess faith are never truly safe from the forces that would undo us, but regardless, we need to continue to stand tall against them.
Rebuild. Rebuild Notre Dame, to show that our lives and our faith are more than just temporary. Rebuild to show that we will continue to withstand the destructive forces that threaten to tear us apart, even when they drive us to our knees and burn us to the ground. Show that we may only have a few decades of life, but that our legacy, our strength, and our beauty live on.
St. Joan of Arc may not have said it about Notre Dame, but she still said it best in her final words: “Hold the Cross high, that I may see it through the flames.”