This morning Paris awakes to the stark fact that its skyline has been changed if not forever certainly for a long time to come. Notre Dame as we have known and inherited it has been lost. The embers of the great fire that reduced this much-loved cathedral to ash and rubble are still glowing red hot. An architectural wonder, countless treasures and a cultural icon have all been consumed in one devastating inferno. It is a devastating event that has drawn attention around the world.
Above all however Notre Dame was a living place of Christian faith and worship. For over 850 years prayers have been offered, the sacraments observed and faith has lived. No charge was made to enter the building. Always pilgrims from all over the world could be found in every nook and cranny praying, making confession, reflecting or simply sitting quietly amidst the tens of thousands of tourists that continually moved around the building. Only on Sunday, barely 48 hours ago, the Archbishop of Paris had started the cathedral’s Holy Week observances.
So much of the commentary and coverage of the fire has been on the loss of an historic building containing as it did countless works of art and other treasures. So much of the coverage has been about the cathedral as a tourist destination. Notre Dame was, and remains, much more than simply a museum or tourist trap. At its heart it contained a living community of people – priests, workers, volunteers, worshippers – all focussed on daily witness of their faith. Yesterday Paris may have lost a building, France a cultural icon and the world a unique centre of historical interest, but for all those who lived and worked in the cathedral and its precincts their loss is much more personal and immediate. Notre Dame before all else was a living breathing centre of Christian witness, and it is this from which all its other attractions sprung.
As the scale of the physical destruction becomes increasingly apparent it is the fact that Notre Dame is more than just a building – it is a living centre of faith that is the strongest guide to its future recovery and restoration. In England we are familiar with great cathedrals suffering catastrophic physical damage – York Minister, Coventry and St. Pauls Cathedrals have all at different times suffered devastating destruction. Through vision, faith and resilience similar to that which first inspired their creation they rose from their own disasters to live on and flourish. The same will be true for Notre Dame. The building and its contents may have been devastatingly damaged, but not its purpose for being, the reason for its existence. Last night, this morning and in the many difficult days, months and years to come that faith and vision which brought it into existence and which has sustained it for nearly a thousand years will see Notre Dame literally rise from the ashes and re-take its place at the heart of Paris.