There was a fire in my church. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of destruction, but the smoke damage remediation will take several weeks and so we’ve been unable to have mass. It brings me back to the catastrophic fire which took place at Notre Dame in Paris almost one year ago and how the devastation of that historic building mirrored the ongoing wreckage within the Catholic Church itself.
The day after the massive fire, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautifully than ever before and that this enormous project would be completed by 2024. As this first year has gone on, the work has been tedious and slow. Archaeologists, historians, and architects are analyzing and repairing blackened objects as scientists work daily in the 850-year old building still very much at risk of collapse.
According to a CNBC article published in late February, the first major task will be the removal of approximately 40,000 pieces of damaged scaffolding weighing about 250 tons that had been previously installed in the roof of the building. Removal of the scaffolding may cause more destruction or even total collapse. It’s painstaking, dangerous work.
It strikes me that the elaborate structures meant to prop up an older church in a modern age might be the very things which cause its eventual demise. That the removal of these damaged supports is both necessary for the future and dangerous for the present moment. After all, no one really knows what will happen if they fall, though likely there are experts on all sides testing the air and making their predictions. In the meantime, it’s the people who are at risk. People working every day in a church that might fall at any time. People who have been displaced without a place to worship. People who long for the beauty of a church that once was, but who find ashes in its place.
As humans, we want to hold on to the beauty of the familiar, and we put a great deal of thought, time, and resources into preserving the past. As Catholics, this can look like a return to traditional modes of worship or music or in placing our faith in the systems or ways it’s always been done, rather than in a living God. But what if fire, whether literal or symbolic, is a divine opportunity to look at things in a new way? What if the Holy Spirit, once symbolized by fire itself, is moving us forward as a church to look not at ashes but sky, not at preservation but possibility. What if we placed our hope not in that which has surely died but instead at what by the grace of God shall rise?
I wrote this on Instagram the day after the Notre Dame fire, April 16, 2019
The church is on fire and the people feel helpless
The church is on fire because so much went wrong
The church is on fire and the people are mourning
The church is on fire and the structure is gone
The church is on fire and there’s piles of ashes
The church is on fire, it will not be the same
The church is on fire and the dross, it is burning
Only dust, ancient stone and the cross, they remain
The church is on fire and the leaders can’t help it
The challenge too much for their hoses and cups
The church is on fire and the people stand waiting
The church is on fire and we’re all looking up
The church is on fire and she needs living water
Of the kind and the shape that the Spirit can bring
The church is on fire in the wake of long winter
She longs for rebirth, resurrection and spring
The church is on fire and the people stand singing
Each voice added in makes the body complete
None better nor worse nor more elevated
But the people of God as they make their entreat
The church is on fire and while we stand praying
The pieces are falling as the things we make do
In the wake of what’s left after fire and water
Hear the sweet voice of God: “Child, I make all things new.”