Yesterday while I was checking my email, I noticed a reference to Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris burning. “That couldn’t be right,” I thought to myself as I scrolled through my messages. But then I did a Google search. In my horror, I saw images of smoke and bright orange flames enveloping the Cathedral. “Oh no!” I called out for mom to quickly turn the TV on.
George Weigel was on with Brian Williams of MSNBC pointing out that this fire was especially tragic because it happened during Holy Week. He mentioned that this profoundly affects people in a way that a fire on the Eiffel Tower could not. The next guest, on phone from Paris, said that the fire hurt all people of the city and of the whole world, including non-Catholics like herself.
What is it about this building that affects both Catholics and non-Catholics alike? Why were people so distraught that it was almost destroyed, reacting as if somebody were dying?
In August of 2000, my family and I found ourselves in Paris. The purpose of our trip to France was actually to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Had we known that Paris was seven hours away from Lourdes, things might have turned out a bit different! Thankfully we did not plan well; instead, we chose to rely solely on Divine Providence and the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a result, we received so many blessings, especially getting to see Notre Dame Cathedral.
As the train to Lourdes was unavailable for three days, we had the opportunity to do some sightseeing in the capital city of France. Of course, we had to see the historic Gothic church we had heard so much about. On a nice sunny day, we set out on our journey. We didn’t have a map but somebody in the hotel we were staying (another unexpected blessing giving us an awesome view of the Eiffel Tower) said that it was right around the corner. A few hours later, we saw arches and flying buttresses and mistook the church dedicated to St. Severin as Notre Dame Cathedral! It was a beautiful church with ornate stained glass windows— but it wasn’t the Cathedral. My sister pulled out her trusty book of French phrases and managed to ask passersby where the it was. “Just keep following the Seine,” “Follow the river, you can’t miss it,” “You’re getting closer,” were the only responses we got. Eight hours later we were at our destination.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! We were right in front of the stone facade that was nearly a thousand years old! Notre Dame Cathedral in all its splendor. There was such a long line of people waiting to get a glimpse of the interior. As we waited our turn, I marveled at the artistry, all the intricately sculpted figures from the Bible. Finally we were inside and the first thing I saw was a sign reminding visitors to maintain modesty, covered shoulders, and a sense of reverence. The Cathedral was dark at first. But then there was the brilliant rose stained glass window! I looked up and marveled at the sheer beauty of it. How did they even get it in place? The next thing we knew, Holy Mass was about to begin. It was the Vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What a great grace to be at this church on the solemnity of its namesake, Our Lady!
For as long as I live, I will never forget the experience. I’m so grateful that I was able to see the Cathedral back then. So it was sad to see that it was on fire now. Thankfully, the main rose windows, some artwork, and relics were saved. Many people all over the world are relieved. What is the answer to my question—what explains the attraction?
In the Gospel reading for Monday, the day of the fire, Judas complains that Mary wasted the costly aromatic ointment by pouring it on the Lord’s feet. He said that it could have been sold with the money given to the poor. I’ve heard some people complain that the Catholic Church has so many grand buildings and treasuries of artwork. Like Judas, they say that these things should be sold and money could solve the problem of poverty. But I think that the fire on Notre Dame Cathedral refutes this argument.
Buildings like the Cathedral have a transcendent quality that reminds us that we have eternal souls. They reflect the beauty of God and of his creation. Notre Dame Cathedral gives a glimpse into the reality of heaven. It is fitting Temple of Almighty God. People don’t appreciate beauty and the purpose of good art. Beauty points us to Goodness and Truth. Truth is articulated and goodness is exemplified through beauty. It speaks to our human desires. Beauty is its own argument.
I think of all the countless souls who have had conversions at Notre Dame. Had it been sold, some of these souls could have actually been lost. Generations and generations of people have been able to appreciate the church.
There is so much “art” that dehumanizes us. Buildings are cold, sterile, and uninspired cubes that only serve utilitarian purposes. But who says that utilitarian things can’t be beautiful too? I took a class on the Way of Beauty taught by British artist, David Clayton and I learned so much. Beautiful works of art, architecture, sculpture, poetry, and music lift us up. They humanize us. We can appreciate these things unlike animals. We are different. We have immortal souls with faculties to appreciate beauty. And I think this is why everybody, universally, seems to love Notre Dame Cathedral.