Grieving the fire of Notre Dame during Holy Week
I watched Notre Dame cathedral burn with a pit in my stomach and tears welling up in my eyes. The spire has fallen. The fire is raging through the cathedral still, and we do not yet know the extent of the damage.
Andre Finot, a spokesman for Notre Dame, said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral will likely come down and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened, too.
“Everything is burning,” Mr. Finot told French media. “Nothing will remain from the frame.”
The first time I traveled abroad, I went on a pilgrimage to the Vatican with my high school youth group. But first we stopped in Paris. There I was, 16 and sweating on a hot July day, staring up at the rose window on the building’s façade that I had only seen in pictures. I attended my first Mass in a foreign country and went to confession with a gentle priest with a thick French accent. This was my first indication that my Catholicism was global, beautiful and rooted in history.
I learned that the construction of the cathedral began in the early 12th century and would take nearly 200 years to be finished. The men who laid the first stones would never see the finished fruits of their labors. I remember wondering if I would have the humility to contribute to such an endeavor, or if any of us still did.
Now is a time for grieving. Notre Dame is a French Catholic treasure that belonged to more than the French and the church. It evokes thoughts of God from the religious and nonreligious alike. Its flying buttresses are a marker of architectural innovation, and its spires and stained glass icons of the Gothic era. And it has borne witness to the joys and tragedies of Paris for over eight centuries, outlasting kings and commanders, wars and revolution.
I returned to Paris in 2016, hoping to marvel again at the hunk of stone that grounded me in my capital-C church and to peer through the rose window that lifted my eyes toward heaven—but historic flooding on the Seine had shut down most of the city, the cathedral included. I had to settle for a view from Shakespeare & Co. across the Île de la Cité , thinking I would have another chance someday to walk inside and pray.
During the last two weeks of Lent, many Catholic churches around the world cover up their religious icons and images, including their crucifixes. Catholics, known for our extravagant use of imagery in prayer and liturgy, turn away from it in the holiest week of the year. In penance and mourning, our senses suffer along with the suffering Lord.
The crucifix that hangs prominently above the altar at my parish was covered by a large purple cloth last night for Palm Sunday, shrouded during our observance of Passiontide. The congregation stood, listening to the passion of Jesus, without any visual reminder of his death on the cross. The implication, our priest explained, is that even hearing or reading about a crucified god is enough for our imaginations.
That lesson clicked today after I saw the spire fall from the top of the cathedral. I had to turn off the livestream. It does not take a pious person to draw the connection of a bloody, broken and dying Jesus to an all-consuming fire destroying one of the world’s most beloved and iconic churches. The floor plan of the cathedral is cruciform—meant to resemble the cross on which Christ’s body was hung. Our Lady, who stood weeping at her son’s crucifixion, surely weeps for the cathedral dedicated to her name.
Notre Dame has survived the deliberate destruction of the French Revolution and the indiscriminate bombings of World War II. Yet this fire has the potential to do more damage than the cathedral has ever seen before. Regardless, it will rise again—even if, like Christ, it bears the wounds of the past.
But the view of Easter Sunday is never murkier than through the haze of Good Friday.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.