It was nothing short of heartbreaking to hear that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire, and nothing short of devastating to watch it burn. Its gorgeous stained-glass glory shattered in the heat, its strong, and its tall spire broke like a soggy ice cream cone before falling into the flames.
Watching the church come down, many of us were startled by the depth of our despair. We were surprised to find that we felt that the majestic cathedral was somehow just a tiny bit ours: named in French for our Lady, it was our cathedral, it stood as a monument of our faith. In 2015, my daughters and my husband and I spent Easter Sunday snaking more slowly than we’d anticipated through long lines à la place in front, fearing we wouldn’t make it inside the towers before too much Mass had been célébrâté, that we might not receive communion under her flying buttresses, That it might not, by the official, rigid, and so often exclusive church rules, even count.
It just never occurred to any of us that Notre Dame cathedral wouldn’t always be there. And the reality of this unanticipated loss in all its fiery glory was devastating: the uncontrolled flames shooting up and out all over the place, the smoke billowing out in unimaginable volumes that reminded us of 9/11. The tower falling down, as you feared it would, the reality of its demise hitting you hard, breaking your heart all over again.
Right away, people started talking about rebuilding. Would they? Could they? Would it ever be the same?
If you’ve ever had a really bad fire at your house, you know that the destruction that you can see is only the beginning. Though the sight of the charred, brittle wood is upsetting, it will turn out to be the least of your problems; it can take a while to appreciate the full scope of the destruction. The structure can be so damaged that rebuilding that is going to be way more difficult than, at first, it looks. The smell of the black smoke gets so deep in your clothes you can’t get it out by just washing them; it’s not like you can’t just wear them to school the next day and carry on like normal, think that nobody will notice. Once you’ve had a fire, everybody can smell it, even from a distance, can see from the car driving by where the flames licked at the windows, where the roof fell in. Everybody knows. Sometimes the damage done by the folks trying to contain the flames is what finally makes the whole thing unsound. What makes it necessary to start over.
Should they rebuild the old church? Should we? Will it ever be the same?
And I mean, it’s just weird, how all this went down during Holy Week, the whole “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days” story right around the corner, coming up later this week. All this in the middle of some years that in a time among the most painful in our Church’s history. A time when the people trying to contain the damage seem to have done some of the most horrific damage of all.
What if the time has come to rebuild the church, differently this time, and from the ground up? Would it be sacrilege to suggest that perhaps the time for cathedrals has passed?
In so many ways, we Christians have lost our way, a way was supposed to be about love and compassion and inclusion, a way that we keep making up new rules to, you know, keep out the riff raff. Greg Boyle, SJ suggests that we’ve somehow wrestled the cup from Jesus’ hands and replaced it with a chalice, because we decided that a chalice is more valuable, as if it that was ever the point. Heck, even Indiana Jones knew, in his quest for the holy grail, that the humble carpenter would have held not an ornate chalice but a simple cup. How did we so lose our way from the man idea, the most basic point, what Boyle refers to as the “original program” of Christianity?
And the Catholic Church? Well, God knows we have a whole ‘nother set of problems. If you are a mom who raised her kids to stand up for what is right, and protect the vulnerable, and do the right thing and tell the truth, and not to ever associate with people who did not do this, while but also hoping they’d remain in the church of their upbringing, you know that the struggle is indeed real. “Burn it down,” is what one of my sons is fond of tweeting in response to the latest sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the news of the latest of the coverups, the payoffs, the shell game of predator priests by the College of Confidence-men Cardinals. It is a figurative reference for sure; a torchman he is not. In no way is he, or am I, suggesting that buildings should actually be burned. Still, now that Notre Dame has burned, I can’t help but think of this, to wonder if he is right.
What if, in this terrible tragedy, Our Lady is taking the opportunity to tell us something? Who knows? Would it hurt to consider it? I mean, it was a monument to her, after all; in the fire, she stood to lose the most.
And even if this is crazy, and also untrue, and maybe even a little heretical to suggest, I’ll go on to take the opportunity to suggest that perhaps it’s time the Catholic Church listened to the voices of more ordinary women, voices that I gotta believe, if I know mothers at all, would have protected children with everything they are. Things would have escalated quickly, and they would have become unbecoming— strident and angry, and, if necessary, unapologetically crazy and even profane—once the sanctity and safety of children came into question. Their voices that would have said, when abusing priests from Baltimore parishes where my kids went to school were knowingly sent down the road to Annapolis parishes where, decades before, my brothers had, things like, “Not on my watch!” and “Over my dead body!” and, with the same righteous fervor as Sally Field in Places in the Heart, “I don’t care if it kills me; I don’t care if it kills you!”. Maybe we could have really contained the destruction, maybe things might have been different, if those voices had been included. But they weren’t. And no one did.
I’m just saying, while the heavy smell of smoke still lingers, while we consider the damage and the rebuilding and the future, that maybe it’s best to start over, rebuild from the ground up. Say goodbye to what’s been lost and make it different this time. Replace chalices and cathedrals with cups and community, and compassion and kinship and the “original program” of Christ.
And then maybe, purified through fire, a new church can be built.