“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.”
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.