What Notre Dame Will Our Generation Build?

by | Apr 16, 2019 | Global Catholicism, Spirituality

Much media coverage of the burning Notre Dame de Paris missed a simple but fundamental point: Notre Dame was a church.

The news stories and social media comments made many good points. Notre Dame was a beautiful building, it contained priceless art, many of us have memories of visiting it, it was the basis for a wonderful Victor Hugo novel, it was a symbol of Paris, its burning is symbolic of all kinds of cultural processes in France and the West, etc.

As true as these claims are, they all suggest that Notre Dame was built for us: that it was built to please, entertain or even represent us. And while that’s not entirely wrong, it is incomplete.

Notre Dame was built for God. And to the extent that it was built for us, it was built for us because it was first built for God. The artistic brilliance, the hard work and labor, the money and time, all of it had one ultimate end: to give glory to God. And by giving God glory, Notre Dame so drew us into a deeper communion of faith, hope and love with Him.

In other words, Notre Dame was a church.

Not many who saw Notre Dame burn appreciated this aspect of it, nor did many of the tourists who have visited Notre Dame in recent years. As Father Reese writes:

In recent decades, Notre Dame was more a tourist destination than a place of pilgrimage or a seat of Catholic potency. More people could tell you the story of its fictitious bell-ringing hunchback than of any one of its bishops. Inside, more selfies took place than prayers, and there were more art connoisseurs among its enthusiasts than worshipers.

And yet, if that purpose seems so alien for so many, there is no question that this purpose was alive in Notre Dame, and that it continued to fascinate and draw in many people of no faith.

Notre Dame was never meant to be a museum. It was meant to be a witness of glory and beauty to God. Like all great art, it was the fruit of a culture’s struggle to reach the outstretched hand of God.

It’s sad to think of the loss of Notre Dame. But even more important is the question: what is the Notre Dame of our time?

Indeed, I think it would betray the spirit of Notre Dame simply to rebuild it. I am not arguing that we should not build it. And, yes, we should appreciate the beauty of Notre Dame. Yes, we should be sad for the loss. But we cannot turn past generations’ works to God into museums and tourist attractions. We cannot simply replicate their work and expect the same spirit to come out of it. That’s getting it backwards. The work has to be animated by the spirit of gift to God.

We should be inspired and challenged by those who built Notre Dame to do great things ourselves. We should be inspired to live out the beauty of God’s truth in our public lives. We should be challenged to leave precious gifts to inspire future generations to themselves sing songs of praise to the glory of God.

Even as it burned, Notre Dame drew us closer to God. This of course is the promise of Christ, that his death on a Friday afternoon would lead to resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is a promise we are called to live out every day.


Bill McCormick, SJ

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