Notre Dame, again

We in Fall River experienced a sad sense of déjà vu this past Monday, when Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was partially destroyed by fire. Our own Notre Dame, in the Flint neighborhood of Fall River, burned down on May 11, 1982. Thanks be to God, in both infernos, no one died.

At the time, Bishop Daniel A. Cronin released a statement, thanking God for protecting human lives and thanking hundreds of people, by name or by group, for their assistance on that tragic day. He added, “The bitter events of last Tuesday have occasioned an outpouring of generosity and brotherly love which is the true silver lining in the dark clouds of tragedy.”

We join with the people of Paris and of all of France in praying for a “silver lining” to come from this latest loss. The best possible one would be a rebirth of faith in what used to be referred to as “the eldest daughter of the Church.”

The building itself will be rebuilt through a collaboration between the Church and the French government. The European Union has also offered support. This is not to say that there is no “separation of church and state” in France — it actually is more severe, generally, in that country than in our own, but the government sees the cathedral as a national symbol, worthy of preserving with its own funds. In the U.S. it is very difficult to obtain government money for the rehabilitation of a church — there are a few examples of non-Catholic churches in Massachusetts which have received some state funding, but this is due to their historical significance (e.g., the “Church of the Presidents” in Quincy, which has the Adamses buried in it). 

The rebuilding of the faith is a much larger project, which does not need money as much as dedication of hearts (although some money is needed in this Spiritual rebuilding, it is the “letting go” of money which most benefits all involved).

In 1884 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical to France, entitled Nobilissima Gallorum Gens (The most noble nation of the French), in which he dealt with the “religious question” facing that country then, when a lot of people there wanted a “State in which the influence of religion is extinguished.” 

He reminded them of their history. “Having embraced Christianity at the initiative of its King, Clovis, it was rewarded by this most honorable testimony to its faith and piety, the title of eldest daughter of the Church. From that time, Venerable Brethren, often have your ancestors been the helpers of Providence itself in the performance of great and salutary works, and especially has their valor been illustrated in defending Catholicism throughout the world, in propagating the Christian Faith among barbarous nations.” 

Referring back to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, Pope Leo wrote, “[E]very human society which does its utmost to exclude God from its laws and its constitution, rejects the help of this Divine beneficence. Rich, therefore, and powerful as it appears, that society bears within itself the seeds of death, and cannot hope for a lengthy existence. It is, indeed, with Christian peoples as with individuals; it is safety to follow the counsels of God, it is danger to fall away from them. These facts are to be found in history; and We could cite to you more recent instances, even in your own country, had We the time to recall the events seen by a previous generation, when the impiety of the mob shook France to its very foundations, and Church and State perished in the same destruction.”

After the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and suburbs, in which more than 100 people were killed, Pope Francis led pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in prayer. “May the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, plant in the hearts of all thoughts of wisdom and resolutions of peace. Let us ask that she protect us and watch over the beloved French nation, the first daughter of the Church, over all of Europe and the whole world.”

Tuesday Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris invited his people to come to the Chrism Mass at the Church of Saint-Sulpice. He wrote, “It will be an opportunity for all of us to show our unity, our fervor and our confidence in the future. We feel that we will not only have to rebuild our cathedral but also rebuild our Church whose face is so wounded.” Here he is reminding the people of the need to rebuild the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, not as merely a physical building. The face is wounded due to our sins, both those of the laity and of the clergy (which is all the more scandalous and about which Christ warned severe punishment). The archbishop wanted to have people be aware that bricks and mortar will not bring healing, but repentance and holiness will.

The archbishop knows that this rebuilding is a long process and often will require “baby steps” to get people to start walking along the path of Christ, our Way, Truth and Life. He suggested, “I propose to all persons of good will that they put in their window on the night of Easter, a candle as we will do in all our churches by beginning the Easter Vigil with the rite of the new fire.” What he proposed is a simple thing which anyone could do, even someone who is not churchgoing or even a believer. We did this here in the U.S. a few nights after 9-11. He is also trying to plant a seed, getting his audience to wonder what this “new fire” is all about.

He continued, “It means that the light illuminates the darkness, that life definitely triumphs over death. Dear brothers and sisters, dear friends, let this tragedy allow our country to find a happy unity so that we can build together what is written on the pediment of our public buildings: fraternity. We believe that it has its origin in the Fatherhood of God, source of all love.”

May we Catholics here see what we can do, in our own lives and as a community, to help in the rebuilding of the Church, thus living the rebirth we celebrate at Easter.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts