It was Tuesday morning when I heard the news that Notre Dame de Paris had gone up in flames the evening before. Having seen it three years ago and, more importantly, having prayed there, I felt a pang of sadness. And then it struck me that there is something powerfully symbolic about the event and its timing, it being the start of Holy Week and perhaps it stands now as a prophetic statement of the spiritual state of Catholicism, not just in France but in Europe. As if Our Lady herself, Notre Dame, is reminding us how things really are.
Much of the reaction has been about the physicality and cultural importance rather than the spiritual and, it’s very interesting that politicians and the wealthy could so readily commit money to the restoration of this great building but do not show the same readiness to put money into the restoration of the lives of the poor. Still, the burning of this much-loved building has brought people’s attention to its sacredness and we have the witness of Fr Jean-Marc Fournier who entered the burning building to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. And when the fire went out, there stood the altar and the cross shining above as another prophetic statement of what survives, signs of hope in the midst of disaster. There must always be hope. There is always hope in Christ.
The burning of Notre Dame sent my mind off to the other great Basilica of Paris, Sacre Coeur which I love very much because I experienced it as a wonderful and vibrant place of prayer. Sacre Coeur, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was Sacre Coeur that came into my conversation with a man in a nursing home whom I visited that afternoon. We hadn’t spoken of Notre Dame but he talked about how he had become an atheist at the age of 16 and, still an atheist at 24, he found himself going up the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris, just one of the many enthusiastic tourists gathered there. It was night but the doors of the Basilica were open and he found himself drawn to the light there and on entering he saw the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar and it seemed to be a blazing beacon that reached out to him. All he could do was fall on his knees.
Then, after he left, he started to rationalize the whole experience until he dismissed it altogether and reverted to his atheism. But that light would emerge in him many years later, it would lure him back to the faith into which he was baptized. When I visit him now he is hungry for the Eucharist, he glows in the light that was ignited in him as a 24-year old young man and for me this is a story of resurrection, the life that can rise from the ashes of unbelief, from the grave wounds in which a human life can be buried. Jesus is that light, He is the beacon and the fire. He is the Light and the Life that would not be held back by the tomb but broke free on the first Easter morning, that breaks free in surprising ways from the tombs in which we find ourselves. There is always hope in Christ.