Mourning and rejoicing after Notre Dame burned

“We are gathered in the Mother Church of the Diocese of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises in the heart of the city as a living sign of God’s presence in our midst.  My predecessor, Pope Alexander III, laid its first stone, and Popes Pius VII and John Paul II honoured it by their presence.  I am happy to follow in their footsteps, a quarter of a century after coming here to offer a conference on catechesis.  It is hard not to give thanks to the Creator of both matter and spirit for the beauty of this edifice.  The Christians of Lutetia had originally built a cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr; as time went on it became too small, and was gradually replaced, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, by the great building we admire today.  The faith of the Middle Ages built the cathedrals, and here your ancestors came to praise God, to entrust to him their hopes and to express their love for him.  Great religious and civil events took place in this shrine, where architects, painters, sculptors and musicians have given the best of themselves.  We need but recall, among so many others, the architect Jean de Chelles, the painter Charles Le Brun, the sculptor Nicolas Coustou and the organists Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau.  Art, as a pathway to God, and choral prayer, the Church’s praise of the Creator, helped Paul Claudel, who attended Vespers here on Christmas Day 1886, to find the way to a personal experience of God.  It is significant that God filled his soul with light during the chanting of the Magnificat, in which the Church listens to the song of the Virgin Mary, the Patroness of this church, who reminds the world that the Almighty has lifted up the lowly (cf. Lk 1:52).  As the scene of other conversions, less celebrated but no less real, and as the pulpit from which preachers of the Gospel like Fathers Lacordaire, Monsabré and Samson transmitted the flame of their passion to the most varied congregations, Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country’s heritage.  Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 12 September 2008, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

12310904-6925015-image-m-220_1555355956402

Last night, Notre Dame burned. This morning, we find that more than we could have hoped for was spared of its interior. The roof and spire may be gone, and soot may cover the walls and mangled debris may have reached the floor, but Notre Dame still stands.

And most important of all, the reason of its existence still remains: the presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, the sacraments given to us who wish to follow Him, as well as some of the symbols of the salvation He wrought for us.

Notre Dame is a historical building which has a special place in the hearts and minds of many, first of all the Parisians and the French, but also those millions, including yours truly, who had the chance to visit her, however briefly.*

But more than a monument to history and the civilisation in which we live, Notre Dame is a church. It is the home of God, a prefiguration of heaven, the place where we come to encounter Him as closely as we can. It manifests the presence of God in the heart of Paris, in the place where that great city began, and thus also in the heart of all the works and endeavours we undertake.

Last night’s fire and its timing, as Holy Week begins, can be understood symbolically, regardless of the cause of the fire. The scenes of people praying and singing as the cathedral burned give us hope and remind us that God hears us at the difficult times in our lives, but He remains present when things are going well and we tend to forget or ignore Him. Like Notre Dame, He is always there.

Today, we may mourn the damage done, but we may also rejoice in what remains. Notre Dame still stands. God is still with us.

*Last October, my wife and I had the chance to visit Notre Dame. By chance we participated in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aupetit and Bishop Freddy Fuenmayor Suárez of Los Teques, Venezuela, who gifted an icon of the Blessed Virgin to Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the mood was celebratory. The joy of the Hispanic community was palpable and infectuous. A fond memory, which made yesterday’s developments all the more painful.

Advertisements

After Paris – why pray?

In the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris last night, social media was flooded today with calls to pray for Paris. Together with that came the accusation that prayer was useless and that we had better actually ‘do something’ to help the people who were wounded or who lost loved ones. Apparently praying is not actually ‘doing something’, and there are other things which are ‘doing something’. But why do so many people ask for prayer, if they do not believe it will do some good?

pray_for_paris130434103

There is a misunderstanding of what prayer is in the minds of those who suggest it is useless. They believe that prayer is a one-way street, from us to God, urging God to do something that He would not do otherwise. Well, if He is not inclined to comfort people, heal them, or even prevent terrible things from happening without us reminding Him that He should, what is the use of Him, people rightly ask.

But this is not what prayer is. Prayer is a two-way street, leading from us to God and from God to us. It is a conversation, if not always one with words. The effects of prayer are therefore present at both ends of the conversation. It is as useful for God as it us for us, not to mention for those we pray for.

In praying for Paris, we recognise and root ourselves in our relationship with God and we find comfort for ourselves. We articulate our care and concern for people that we likely don’t even know, and, once articulated, this care and concern can take root and grow in us and radiate outwards to those around us. God is love. When we show love, which care and concern are, we show and share God. God comes down to live among us in our love for our neighbours. He doesn’t force Himself upon us, but will answer every time we reach out to Him. No man is an island, and it is our care for each other that helps us reach our fullest potential, even after this life. We don’t know who the people were who died last night, we don’t know who they left behind, and we certainly don’t pretend to know what they are going through. But we support them, show our love and share God through that love, making Him present in this world and so reflecting our own relationship with Him in the relationship between Him and others.

Another question is if God couldn’t and shouldn’t have prevented the terrible events of last night from happening. Of course, He could. But He didn’t. This is very difficult for many, both in and outside the Church, but the essence of it is this: God created man with a free will that He will always respect. Unlike the gods from mythology, but also from modern religions such as Islam, God will never force Himself on anyone, making him or her do things he or she does not choose to do. It does not matter if that person is an innocent victim or a murderous terrorist. God respects human freedom, and is there to help guide them if they so choose, or help them live with the consequence of their choices.

In Paris last night, the victims made no choices, of course. They are the victims of a mindless evil that has denounced God. God does not, however, denounce the innocent, and is there for them and those they leave behind, leading them to His eternal light and their fullest being as His creatures. Always. And we can help them find Him through our prayer.