I was enjoying a bit of lunch when my friend Bob Grip blasted me a text: “Are you watching CNN?” When I said no, he messaged, “Notre Dame is burning.” My first thought was my Alma Mater, the University in South Bend, IN. When I asked, “What? Where?” I was thinking, “Which residence hall?” Then he said, “Paris…” My lunch suddenly seemed very unimportant.
Those who watched cannot forget the image of the flames and the collapse of the spire. In a qualitatively different (and yet similarly riveting way) it was a little like watching the World Trade Center towers collapsing after the strikes on 11 September. Now what?
Of course, pledges that it be re-built (in five years!) were made, and high-end commercial giants have pledged high-end amounts toward the project. Protests are being made, as I understand it: why re-build a church when people are starving in France? Perhaps a bit callously, I observed that a significant portion of the French economy is based on tourism, of which Notre Dame plays a large part…
Donations will surely come from around the world. In 1823, a fire accidentally caused by repair worker error caused virtually the entire of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome to burn to the ground. All that was saved was the triumphal arch (and mosaics), the high altar, and the mosaics of the apse. The church (which is seen today) was completely re-built with donations even from the Czar of Russia (whose Orthodox Church was and is no lover of the Latin West). A similar story could be told about the re-construction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino after its destruction by Allied bombings during World War II, or the completely new cathedral in Coventry, England (financed as an act of reparation by German money) to replace the one destroyed during a blitzkrieg by the Nazi Luftwaffe. This latter example is especially poignant: the new building is attached to the ruins of the old one, and the original high altar is marked by a cross made from burnt-out ceiling beams, with an inscription added to the front of that altar: “Father, forgive.”
The same can and should be accomplished for Notre Dame. It was not an act of terrorism; it was not an act of war; it was not an act of human error. It was an accident, purely and simply but it was still a disaster. There may not be the same need for forgiveness, as in Coventry; there may not be the same need for recognizing the process by which the ends were said to justify the means, as at Monte Cassino; there may not be the same need for apologies as there was at St Paul’s Outside the Walls. But there is the same need to re-build. Quasimodo will be there to ring the bells once again.