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The Burning of Notre Dame Cathedral: A Tragic Symbol for Our Times

Image via @princess_redd / Twitter

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been burning for hours. It appears there will not be much left of France’s most iconic Catholic church by tomorrow morning.

The blaze, which has already consumed the cathedral’s spire and collapsed the roof, was reported to have begun with a small fire, possibly in the scaffolding that was being used to do significant renovation and restoration project.


Since the original tweet embedded above has disappeared, here’s a video of the spire collapse:

It is said to have weighed 750 tons.

Here is another angle:

Nobody seems to know just yet if the fire was set intentionally, but last month, a dozen Catholic churches in France were desecrated over the span of a week. The church of Saint-Sulpice, another major Parish church, was purposefully set ablaze.

The spire of Notre Dame itself, which collapsed just moments before I began writing this, is said to contain several significant relics, including a piece of the crown of thorns.

What is mystifying to me, glued as I have been to coverage of this event still unfolding in real time, is that there appeared to be nobody attempting to fight the fire until it was too late. I’m sure there’s a reason for that, but the sense of hopelessness that came along with watching the blaze spread with no visible attempt to stop it is difficult to describe.

It reminds me very much of watching 9/11 unfold, nobody understanding why, or what happened, or what could be done.

This time, fortunately, no lives were lost. But there is still something extraordinarily tragic here. It is, in a way, like watching the burning of a corpse, a beautiful husk that symbolized for centuries the “eldest daughter of the Church.” Sadly, most of the people of France have long since given up their Catholic faith, and the cathedral itself was viewed largely as an art museum and cultural relic, rather than a house of God.

Watching powerlessly as this icon of Christendom has been ravaged is also eerily reminiscent of the past 15 or so years of my life, during which I have studied what has been done to the Church since the beginning of the 20th century. Redolent of that larger tragedy, one sees again in the news feeds the utter devastation and desolation of so many holy hings, all compressed into just a few heartbreaking moments.

There is no question that today’s events are deeply symbolic.

A friend commented sardonically that “the liturgy that built the building has been banished, so it seems only logical” that the building itself would be demolished, too.

I have been to France only once, in 1999. I was in Paris briefly on a train layover to Normandy, and I did not have the means to explore the city while I was there. Consequently, I never made it to Notre Dame. It was on my list of the treasures of Christendom I would have very much liked to see.

Now, though the stone edifice of the building stands, what was within has been hollowed out, the famous rose window — which dates back to the 13th century — lost to the flames, the heavily wooden interior all consumed in the conflagration, an untold amount of irreplaceable artwork destroyed.

It is a heartbreaking day, amid a series of heartbreaking days for Catholics.

May God arise and restore His Church to her former glory — and give us the fortitude to persevere until then.

Notre-Dame de Paris, ora pro nobis!

UPDATE – 4/16/2019:

Despite the appearance that the Rose windows had blown out — you could see flames through one of them like it wasn’t even there — there is now confirmation that they have all survived. These windows also date back to the 13th century, so that’s practically a miracle in itself. Fantastic news.

In fact, much of the interior remains in tact, many pieces of precious artwork were saved, and France’s ultra-wealthy are lining up to donate hundreds of millions for restoration. (Let’s hope they restore, rather than modernize.)

Further, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain to the Paris Fire Department, rushed into the cathedral and saved both the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. I had originally heard that only a piece was there, but evidently the entire crown was kept at Notre Dame.

Fr. Fournier was also the priest who rushed in to give aid, comfort, and sacraments to the dying during the Bataclan massacre. As it turns out, he began his priestly service with the FSSP. The man is a hero, and his facial hair is on point:

One of the most moving things to come out of the many images and videos from Paris yesterday was of a group of the faithful praying the rosary and singing a French Ave Maria in the streets as they watched the battle to control the Fire. I did not get through this with dry eyes, and you probably won’t either:


The official accounts are saying that there is no sign of arson, and that the fire was likely begun by accident, although the investigation is continuing. But with ISIS is already celebrating the fire as “retribution and punishment,” and after a recent spate of church desecrations in the past couple of months, including a blaze set at Paris’s San-Sulpice, many people (myself included) are suspicious of the rush to offer an innocuous explanation, but anything is possible.

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