The recent fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral continues to burn bright in my mind. Like countless millions of people worldwide, I was horrified and transfixed by the sight of this historic structure in flames. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the cathedral, and as a person of faith, life-long church goer and former catechism teacher, my experience there was moving and profound, near miraculous in fact. Watching the live news streaming from Paris on April 15, I recognized in the faces and expressions of Parisian eye witnesses feelings I could also relate to, shared feelings of grief and helplessness.
And yet, I know too that France is among the most secular nations in Europe. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of France identified as non-practicing Christian and 28 percent as religiously unaffiliated. Why then the instant and almost overwhelming outpouring of anguish? If the Notre Dame Cathedral is no more than an immensely popular tourist destination and exquisite example of French Gothic architecture, is that enough to move people to tears? Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that.
To me, the Notre Dame Cathedral represents Truth, and I’m capitalizing it here for effect. From my perspective, the Truth of the Notre Dame Cathedral is of a religious nature, deeply interwoven in the fabric of our society, but I can also see Truth in the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. These truths reflect the dynamic tension and energy between who we are as humans each day— imperfect and flawed in many ways—and the higher ideals we can aspire to.
For nearly 10 centuries, the Notre Dame Cathedral has stood as a symbol of the highest ideals in Western culture, and people worldwide have been deeply affected by its near destruction, whether they’re actively religious or not. I have no doubt the cathedral will be rebuilt and touch the lives of generations to come. Truth endures. May we all recognize it when we see it, even if it takes a tragic fire to gain new insight.