It was a video that brought so many of us to tears: a crowd kneeling and singing “Ave Maria” while Notre Dame burned. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu,” they beautifully sang as the camera panned to a shot of raw fire.
The juxtaposition between the two images was surreal: at the very moment when devastating flames scorched the body of the cathedral, the bystanders seemed to snatch up its soul with their heavenly song to Our Lady. In that moment of recourse to Mary, they salvaged the faith symbolized by the soaring stones; their song seemed to rise above the fire, in place of the now collapsed spire.
And yet the residual symbolism of the blazing Gothic cathedral remains deeply haunting. As Fr. Kevin Cusick put it: “Today God has allowed us to be reminded of what can be taken away, a symbol of something far greater and infinitely more precious that many have voluntarily forsaken or rejected: our holy Catholic Faith.”
It is a profoundly painful image: a soul’s voluntary torching of a treasure even more exquisite than a rose window or Nicolas Coustou’s Pieta. We in postmodernity have set fire to faith itself — and it is hard to hear an ethereal, imploring “Ave Maria” amid the flames. A brilliant golden altar cross may have glowed intact, transcendently, in Notre Dame’s interior — but that is no guarantee of what will be left when we survey our own wreckage.
Cardinal Burke commented:
Viewing the ravage of the Cathedral of Notre Dame by yesterday’s fire, men and women of faith are led to consider the attacks upon the infinite beauty of the faith by the grievous sins and crimes of our day[.] …
Yesterday’s event is a sobering reflection upon the destructiveness of man’s rebellion against the beauty, truth, and goodness with which God has created us and our world and has redeemed us and our world by the Redemptive Incarnation of His only-begotten Son, the very event celebrated in the building of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
And so we must turn, like the French bystanders, to the “Ave Maria” of Notre Dame. In The Secret of the Rosary, the great Frenchman St. Louis de Montfort recalls how St. Dominic discovered the “weapon which the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world” — that is, the Holy Rosary.
As Our Lady explained:
My son, do not be surprised that your sermons fail to bear the results you had hoped for. You are trying to cultivate a piece of ground which has not had any rain. Now when Almighty God planned to renew the face of the earth He started by sending down rain from heaven—and this was the Angelic Salutation. In this way God made over the world.
A heaven-sent, renovating rain — this is what the “Ave Maria” signifies both at Notre Dame and in the life of the soul. The Secret of the Rosary calls the prayer “a blessed dew that falls from heaven,” watering “the garden of the soul.”
If the “Ave Maria” is our hope for extinguishing personal and civilizational fires, it is also our great consolation in the face of transience and death. Tremulously watching the smoldering cathedral, the soul of the crowd rose up — and when it spoke, it sang, “Holy Mary, Mother of God / Pray for us, sinners / Now, and at the hour of our death.” In The Secret of the Rosary, we meditate on these same lines with aching cries:
PRAY FOR US, SINNERS—
Thou who art always filled with compassion
For those in need—
Thou who wilt never despise sinnersOr turn them away…
Pray for us
During this short life
So fraught with sorrow and uncertainty.
Pray for us now,
Now—because we can be sure of nothing
Except the present moment.
Pray for us now
That we are being attacked night and day
By powerful and ruthless enemies …
Pray for us now
AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH,
So terrible and full of danger,
When our strength is waning
And our spirits are sinking
And our souls and bodies
Are worn out with fear and pain
Pray for us then
At the hour of our death…
Many have described having goose bumps after watching the “Ave Maria” video — perhaps because it registers spiritual realities almost too strong to bear. We saw, in thirty-seven compressed seconds, a haunting image of soul-death, of faith in flames — transcended by the soul’s irrepressible turning to Mary in this vale of tears.
Julia Meloni is the author of The St. Gallen Mafia (TAN, 2021). She writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in English from Harvard.