As Notre Dame burned I found it increasingly difficult to focus on my work. Every fifteen minutes or so I would do a search on my computer to see if there was any good (or at least less bad) news. Someone gave me a brass model of the cathedral about a year or two ago and I went upstairs and brought it down to my desk to contemplate as the day progressed.
Why is it so significant that this structure caught on fire? Why did it attract the attention of much of the world? It is for reasons much deeper than many people think. It is more than just a tourist attraction going down, it is more than something old that was in danger of disappearing, it is more than another significant part of another skyline possibly being erased.
Already more than 650,000 dollars have been raised to rebuild. Non-Catholics shed tears and offer support. Why should a Catholic Church so many miles away and which so many people who watched on-line moment by moment be so dear to the hearts of so many who have never seen it in person and maybe do not even belong to the Church?
It is because this 850+ year old church is more than just another shelter. It is more than art. It is more than history. It is an icon (not an idol) of Western Culture. When our culture is radicalized and reaches its zenith, it produces Notre Dame, not “Real Housewives of Madison County.” The former an example of us at our best, the ladder is of us on a decline. Notre Dame is what happens when God is at the center of our culture, when we value the human person, when true beauty is held in esteem, when be believe in something bigger than ourselves, when we focus on our responsibilities to each other and not just grabbing at our rights, when art is about inspiring the human person and not a mastabatory exercise in self expression. It is about when individuals sacrifice on behalf of all (into the future) and all sacrifice on behalf of the individual person. Even when we forget these things (and we have been doing that a lot lately) this great dame stood as a constant reminder that, when we were ready to come to our senses, we could achieve this again.
Generally people think of St. Sebastian as a large and bright church. Today as I celebrated Mass with the children for Tuesday of Holy Week, it felt small. If St. Sebastian burned to the ground today, there would not be a world wide call to rebuild her. Presidents and Kings would not offer their condolences and support. CNN would not have a moment by moment analysis of the local tragedy. But it would still be a significant event.
It may be very minor in the scheme of things, but this parish does play a role in the building up of Western Culture. Original artwork, beautiful grounds, great music reside within her and constant reflection on Scripture and the great ideas that have formed all of Western Culture echo in her walls. With great effort she brings significant life to her boundaries and does what she can to educate, inspire and influence people to what is Good, True and Beautiful in our Western, Christian culture. Places like Notre Dame inspire her to her best.
What did we lose in Notre Dame? We lost a three dimensional blueprint of our best selves. We are in danger of losing another reminder of who we can be. I fear we were in danger of losing the ideas of God upon which our culture is based, ideas already much in need of shoring up not unlike the remain walls of this cathedral. Part of us burned with her.