CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/AFP/Getty Images
Paris and the world awoke on Tuesday morning to the news that although Notre Dame Cathedral had been badly damaged the main structure had, somehow, survived.
Notre Dame as we have known and inherited it has been lost, of course. The embers of the great fire that reduced the roof of the much-loved cathedral to ash and rubble are still glowing red hot. But many of the relics and artworks were saved, thanks to the work of priests, staff and fireworkers. The walls still stand, just. Sadness around the world at the fate of this architectural wonder is now leavened by a measure of relief.
In the coverage, one key feature of the great Cathedral has tended to be overlooked, however.
Above all 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 concentrated on damage done to a 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.
Yet 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 focused on daily witness of their faith.
Paris may have almost lost a building, France may have seen one of its prime cultural icons come close close to destruction, 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 investigators launch their inquiry and work begins on ensuring that the fragile structure is secured, we should not forget 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 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 again and re-take its place restored at the heart of Paris.