Why would anyone who did not care about faith or God or the Catholic Church feel so deeply about the tragic fire at Notre Dame?
If the events of Holy Week this year prove anything, it's that Humphrey Bogart was wrong when he uttered the line, "We'll always have Paris." Even something we've taken for granted for almost 900 years can be destroyed. Although it looks like the famed medieval cathedral can be salvaged and will be rebuilt, Notre Dame de Paris will not last forever.
The faith it represents -- the beliefs of those who built this extraordinary edifice as well as what we know as Western Civilization around it -- however, will. Last forever, that is. There is no smoke, no fire, no flood, no accident, no scandal, no war, and no act of hatred or terror that can quench salvation in Jesus Christ. Nothing can permanently divert the rivers of baptism as they flow through history and across the generations. The world as we know it may be fragile; eternity is not.
Notre Dame stands for the things that last and that is why not only Parisians, not only the French, not only Christians, were brought to tears when smoke filled the skies above the River Seine. There is something in all of us, even in those who adamantly refuse to believe, that longs for things transcendent and eternal; things like beauty, goodness, and truth -- things like nobility, self-sacrifice, and love. These are the patrimony of every church; they are meant to be the testimony of every soul.
Somewhere along the line, though, too many of us stopped realizing just how much we rely on the ancient structures of Christendom. Even those who walk by a place like Notre Dame without looking up, who never stop to go inside, saw more than just an old wooden roof go up in smoke. They perceived that something valuable had been damaged, perhaps even lost. They took that loss personally because they felt it personally.
For those who haven't crossed the threshold of a church in decades, I suspect the depth of sadness they experienced surprised them. But more, it begs the question: Why would anyone who did not care about faith or God or the Catholic Church feel so deeply about the tragic fire at Notre Dame? How could something we no longer consider relevant bring us to tears?
The answer is that, no matter how often we tell ourselves or one another that religion is primitive, or declare that we are now living in a post-Christian world, our tears prove otherwise. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a post-Christian world because Christ remains in it. The enemies of Jesus on that first Good Friday thought they could move the world past Christ. They nailed him to a cross to fix him in time. But what they never understood was that all time leads to him. All of time culminates at the cross, and the cross of Christ stands in eternity.
When a terrible event occurs, the truth becomes clearer. Smoke and ash and devastation cannot hide it. The beauty of faith in Christ, the glory of the Mother of God, and the power of hope in Jesus' Resurrection are apparent to the whole world. This week, the City of Lights was a beacon to all. In the glow of the flames, a new day has been kindled in Paris, in France, in Europe, and for the world. Today, the truth of Christ shines like light through the stained-glass rose windows of Notre Dame.
There is a point at which Catholique non-practicant ("non-practicing Catholic") becomes no longer Catholic at all. But evidently, we have not quite come to it. The faith is as alive as Jesus is. It can be found in the human chain that rescued the Blessed Sacrament, the Crown of Thorns, and the tunic of St. King Louis IX. It is visible on tear-stained cheeks and in the crowds that gathered along the Seine. It is audible in the voices singing Ave Maria as the flames shot upward. And it is affirmed in the desire to restore what has been lost. I pray that, in the process, we become more like those who first built the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the rich and beautiful civilization that Christian faith inspires. If we do, we will find that our faith mattered to us all along, and that what we save has the power to save us.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.