The world went to bed in mourning on April 15. Not since 9/11 had flames and smoke engulfed a beloved landmark the way they overcame Notre Dame in Paris that evening.
“Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives,” French President Emmanuel Macron lamented in front of the burning cathedral.
Other European voices added to the sense of collective loss. “Notre Dame belonged to the whole of mankind,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Newspapers such as El Pais in Spain bemoaned the damage done to “a symbol of European culture”. Venice’s La Fenice theater tweeted, “We were devastated by fire and every time we were reborn. It will happen to you as well, do not fear, friends!”
However sincere and moving these words may be, they betray also a greater tragedy: the loss of a common language of faith. The fact that Notre Dame was a church built primarily as a house of prayer seemed curiously in the background.
Sure, the cathedral witnessed the coronation of Napoleon and survived the French Revolution and two world wars. It is a symbol of Paris and a heritage of all humanity. But our collective mourning should not forget the fact that a church was on fire. More than a national icon or a touristic spot, cathedrals such as Notre Dame reveal their soul when they house singing and baptisms, confession and pardon, preaching and prayer.
Church buildings certainly colour all kinds of memories. I, for one, asked my wife’s hand in marriage on a boat that cruised on the Seine. Her hand, now with an engagement ring, clutched mine as we admired Notre Dame. Years later, our kids played at the park behind the cathedral in a hot summer morning.
But if our shared vocabulary excludes words such as ‘God’ and ‘belief’, we will have lost more than a building. We will have lost the lexicon of our souls.
How more robust will our rebuilding efforts be if they are inspired by something like the words of the prophet Haggai, who encouraged the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem saying, “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace.’”
Similarly, our thankfulness will be greater once rebuilding efforts are completed if we share language such as that of Psalm 126:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’“
I live in Rome, a city that gathers more cathedrals than any other. I love to watch children play soccer in front of basilicas or couples lick gelati sitting on the steps that lead to a sanctuary. But part of me misses the fact that not many of them enter such churches except to take pictures. It is inside such buildings that our hearts can soar.
It is appropriate for politicians to mourn the damage done to a world-famous icon. It is more appropriate still for people of faith to pray that churches may again be regarded as living sanctuaries more than as civic landmarks.
René Breuel is the pastor of a church in Rome. © 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group.