One of Christendom’s greatest and oldest sanctuaries has suffered great damage but largely survived. According to whom you read, its devastation is a metaphor for European Christianity’s collapse or for its rebirth through fire.
The mass horror over Notre Dame’s fire, and the immediate resolve for the cathedral’s full restoration, signify that France’s connection to Catholicism is not so remote as often imagined, True, it was a national political and cultural symbol. But it was chiefly an active church where the Eucharist is celebrated daily and whose architecture honors saints, Apostles and prophets. Neither France nor Europe nor the West can be understood politically or culturally apart from those saints, Apostles, and prophets.
For over two centuries France has avowed a strict separation between religion and state. Yet Notre Dame, named for mother of Jesus, still loomed over Paris, its bells commemorating the nation’s central events, such as the 1944 liberation and the 1918 armistice. In 2016 the cathedral hosted a funeral mass for Father Jacques Hamel, an elderly priest murdered by an Islamist, which four French presidents attended, and to which the Archbishop of Paris preached.
Nearly every notable French person with countless other Europeans of the last millennium has been a witness to Notre Dame. Thomas Aquinas saw its construction. Joan of Arc spied it from afar as she besieged Paris. John Calvin presumably worshipped there. So did Louis 14th, Cardinal Richelieu, Moliere, Descartes, Victor Hugo and Charles de Gaulle. Voltaire, Robespierre and Sartre scoffed at its faith but could not ignore its power. Napoleon crowned himself there. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson beheld it. So too did even Hitler, who thought he had conquered it but was instead defeated by it.
A leftist Native American speaker popular in some USA Evangelical circles harrumphed that Notre Dame was an icon of European colonialism and intrinsically corrupt Christendom. All civilizations are corrupt in some way but he’s right to identify the cathedral as symbol of Christian civilization. Notre Dame is not just a church nor just an historical tourist destination nor just a symbol of French culture. It embodies the biblical aspiration to construct a comprehensive society aspiring to give glory to its Creator.
French revolutionaries and secularists have long touted the rights of man. But such rights and claims descend directly from the biblical story that Notre Dame emblemizes. The cathedral’s soaring architecture represents the sacred cosmology of creation, fall, redemption and eschatological completion. Humans are sacred only because of their central role in this divine narrative.
Many French and Europeans may no longer consciously identify with the faith of Notre Dame. But they are indelibly creatures of it and cannot escape it. Maybe the great fire marks their continued denial of this spiritual and historical reality. Or maybe the stunned reaction to it will generate a recovery of memory, gratitude and faith.