Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? (I was not yet born.) When 9/11 happened? (I was in seventh grade social studies class.) Add to that list: “Where were you when you heard Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire?” I was sitting in my office and received a notification about the breaking news.
With the rest of the world, we watched the videos and were glued to the television to know what would become of this iconic cathedral of the Church’s eldest daughter. After listening to the news, we became elated as good news continued to be reported: The crown of the thorns and Blessed Sacrament were saved. We now see the miraculous images of the cathedral’s interior and we are left to process our emotions, and what we saw, heard, and read. Driving between churches on Monday evening, these were the thoughts that ran through my head:
Mary is teaching us a few lessons
Mary is a teacher. She taught the Christ Child and throughout time she has taught children seers through her apparitions, like the French visionary St. Bernadette Soubirous. To all believers, she teaches lessons about living virtuously and how to pray. In the wake of the Notre Dame fire I’d propose that Our Lady is teaching us two lessons: gratitude and treasuring.
Social media was a flurry with people posting pictures from their trips to Notre Dame and sharing their memories and impressions. Others shared that they were going to be visting in a few weeks or months ahead, and now were disappointed they would not see this magnificent cathedral. For those of us who were blessed to have walked through the doors of Notre Dame Cathedral, we can give thanks to God for that experience. And one of the ways we give thanks is by recalling that experience.
This is the act of treasuring our memories, just like Mary held all the events of Christ’s life in her heart. In the aftermath of the fire, we are left to remember our experiences, reliving them in our mind, and being prompted to give thanks to God.
A time for prayer
If you followed the events on social media, you probably saw the viral video of people gathering nearby Notre Dame and chanting the Hail Mary and other Marian songs. Many are quick to point out the decline of practicing the faith. Some reports I saw suggest that only 5 percent of the French attend Mass on a weekly basis. Yet, they flooded the streets and lifted their voices up to God in prayer.
In moments of sadness and grief, people have not forgotten what to do. As they were moved to pray in the streets, as believers around the world, we now unite our prayers with theirs, and also add our own, that this spiritual fervor will continue in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. Let us pray that as the French unite under Our Lady’s mantle, that they will remain there and see her as their mother, intercessor, and guide.
The maternal presence of Mary
For centuries, believers have visited Notre Dame Cathedral. They went on pilgrimage, participated in worship, and offered their prayers to God in that sanctuary. They saw the ornate beauty of the sanctuary and were moved to contemplate heavenly things. But one constant in that sanctuary was the maternal presence of Mary.
Notre Dame Cathedral was not just the cathedral for Paris; in a sense it was a cathedral for the world, as millions visited there each year. When we visit a Marian shrine, it is as if we are going to our mother’s home. In Mary’s home we find peace and comfort. Even for those who visited the cathedral as if it were a museum, the reality is there was a spiritual dimension at work they were not even aware of and graces being given by Almighty God.
There were many devotional images of Our Lady, allowing people to feel like they were at home in the cathedral. A listener to Relevant Radio shared about seeing an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe or Fr. Innocent Smith, OP, on Twitter shared an image of Our Lady of China, commenting on the universality of Notre Dame. Notre Dame was a home for all people, a place where we encountered the maternal gaze of Mary.
A different type of Holy Week
The fire at Notre Dame on Monday of Holy Week surely sets a somber tone for our celebrations of Christ’s passion and death. I’d expect some preachers might use it as a preaching moment in their Triduum homilies, drawing upon the rescue of the Blessed Sacrament, crown of thorns, or the cross still standing in the sanctuary. The whole world talked about the treasures of Notre Dame, namely the relic of the crown of thorns, and because it was rescued, we all have a new found appreciation, awareness, and devotion to the crown of thorns.
For the people of Paris, Notre Dame would have been the center of many Holy Week liturgies, but now their Holy Week will take on a different character. My bishop, David Ricken of Green Bay, tweeted: “In this Holy Week, we know and believe that for every Good Friday, God will bring forth a glorious Easter Sunday.”
Good Friday came early for Paris, but we hold on to the promise that Easter will come for them. The Church in Paris will rise from the ashes of the fire.
We also can look at Holy Week through the eyes of Our Lady (Notre Dame). We can sit with Mary and grieve over the loss of this church, just as she grieved over the loss of her Son. We can mourn with Mary over the fact that so many people will not meet the divine in that sacred space. Spend some time this Holy Week reflecting and praying with Our Lady.
Appreciate what you have
Kathryn Jean Lopez from National Review tweeted a photo of the Newark, New Jersey, cathedral and renewed appreciation for all cathedrals. It’s often said that we don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it. Do not take for granted the sanctuaries you have in your area. Visit often your local parish church and offer your prayers there. If you have never visited your cathedral or some other significant church, make plans to do so soon.
May Mary unite us
The Cathedral of Notre Dame stood out in the city of Paris as a monument testifying to the magnificence and grandeur of God. It was a reminder of the sacred for all believers. As Our Lady does, she now unites believers of all faiths and even unbelievers in the task of rebuilding and restoring the sacred. I hope that some time in the future the glorious sounds of praising God will fill the walls of Notre Dame, and all creation once again will echo Salve Regina.