Puis il dit au disciple, “Voilà ta Mère.” And then he said to the disciple, “Behold thy Mother.”
It’s one of the most gripping scenes in the Gospels of Holy Week. From the cross, Christ says to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son.” To his disciple, he says, “Behold thy mother.” This is the moment that Mary becomes, for all Christians, Our Mother. And “Our Lady.” In French: “Nôtre Dame”
When I heard two years ago that Our Lady in Paris was falling apart, the victim of neglect by the French state and the church acting in perverse concert, I said that I felt impelled to make plans to travel to Paris to see it before it was too late. Alas, whenever I do see it, it will be different.
My mind had already been in France. On Saturday morning, I met NR’s occasional Paris correspondent, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, in New York City, just ahead of his flight back home. And tonight he sent me texts, shell-shocked at the enormity unfolding in his city, relaying the awful smell of smoke that swirled over him with the change of the wind, an awful image of burning incense being offered from what was once the heart of Christendom.
It is hard not to see the burning of a sacred structure as a kind of vision of apocalypse itself. I felt stomach-sick in recent years as ISIS exploded ancient temples of Eastern Syria and shrines to the biblical prophet Jonah. The French were also so moved today. Bernard Pivot, a beloved 83-year-old French journalist, a “man of letters” in the way the term used to be understood, was staggered by the sight of Our Lady burning and collapsing. He wrote: “When the burning spire fell, it was as if, all together, faith and history and beauty had given up in the face of barbarism.”
But not all is lost. No one was killed. Priests report that the process of renovation itself that may have been a proximate cause of the fire meant that many pieces of artwork and holy relics had already been removed from the church before the fire. The Holy Eucharist had been saved from the destruction. And as night settled over Paris, firefighters reported that the façade and two towers had been saved from the utter destruction. President Emmanuel Macron announced, “This Cathedral will be rebuilt.”
But that rebuilding will be a massive undertaking. The spire fell. The interior is damaged. The 200-million-dollar renovation that had been funded primarily by Americans will look like a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of restoring the cathedral from this fire.
But some things are unrecoverable. Some of the medieval techniques and the late-19th-century techniques used in a previous restoration are poorly understood or lost to history entirely. And of course, what is lost also is some of the venerable warp and woof of the place. The first stone was laid in 1163, and the last in 1345, an amazing testament to the high Middle Ages and the ability of Christians to see through a project over many centuries. Even rebuilt, it will be introduced to new people, people as yet unborn, as destroyed in 2019 and restored later.
I’ve been tempted in the past to make Notre Dame’s disrepair into a symbol of the disrepair of the Catholic Church itself, of the decay of Christianity in France specifically and Europe more generally. But the fact is, it is also an operating cathedral that attracts regular worshippers from Paris as well as tourists who make of Notre Dame a one-Mass pilgrimage. It is a symbol of medieval greatness, of French culture, and Parisian splendor. But it also a church in which worshippers still commune with the divine, in which the bell rings and men and women fall to their knees, honoring Notre Dame, and adoring her son, God Incarnate.