Notre-Dame, Saint Patrick’s, and the Cathedrals That Are Our Lives

People outside Notre Dame Cathedral two days after the fire in Paris, France, April 17, 2019. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
A fire burns in more than the beloved cathedral.

The Wi-Fi on my flight from Rome to Newark wasn’t working, so phones were buzzing about Notre Dame in France as soon as we hit the runway. After the initial shock and sadness, gratitude was expressed. There are upsides to being disconnected: At least we didn’t have to watch, on live television, something we couldn’t control. That seemed to be an instant lesson, before we knew much of anything, including the cause or the damage.

I’ve never been to Paris, so I’ve never been to the cathedral there. But on Monday I did the closest I could after I cleared customs: I went to the cathedral in Newark, N.J. The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is, as it happens, an under-appreciated treasure. It’s safe to say that most people do not travel to New York City only to hop on the train to Newark to pray. More should. As it happens, the Mass schedule was changed up for Holy Week, so my visit was short that day. But had I stayed on, I might have run into the man who would be arrested later that week in my home cathedral of Saint Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. On Monday, he had been removed by police at Sacred Heart Cathedral, for refusing to leave. On Wednesday, he was caught trying to set fire to “America’s Parish Church” over the Hudson.

I mention all this not only because it hits a little close to home but because the reactions people have had to Notre Dame in flames is a sign of hope in the world, isn’t it? We live at a time when so many of us seem to be living lives as partial spectators, upset about things we can have no control over, letting our moods and even health be affected for the worse by politics, primarily. Not only is there more to life than the Mueller report. There’s even more to life than people’s takes on it.

I got into Saint Peter’s Basilica only once on this trip to Rome. Security has been stepped up in recent years, and my old ways of going in as often as I can have become a thing of the past, given the line to get in. I was immersed in prayer and thanksgiving this time and didn’t really have the thought I did on a previous visit: This could be my last time here. Rewind a bit and the so-called Islamic State was openly calling for attacks on the pope and the Vatican and I had very much considered the possibility. When a priest friend from the U.S. was called to assignment there, the terrorist-attack concern was one of my first thoughts, which became prayers for protection. But I do think about it now and again at Saint Patrick’s, as a counterterrorism police officer seems to be patrolling by the confessional as I wait in line. I sometimes think: This is not a normal church experience.

But then it is, isn’t it, living in these times? It seemed all the more part of the fabric of our lives when on Tuesday, about 24 hours before the gas-can incident that would lead to the scare and the arrest at Saint Patrick’s, I watched a counterterrorism cop holding one of his children by the hand, showing his family one of the side chapels during his break. Churches are full of stories. People who gave from their earnings to help pay for them, the skill by which others created a gift to God, and to man, to help us reach Heaven. They continue to be full of stories, even Notre Dame. People can’t seem to get enough of the story of the fire chaplain who, in the days after the fire, was talking about the the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, which Catholics believes is the Real Presence of Christ. It seemed to me a miracle of God that during Holy Week — which would become Mueller Report Week by mid Wednesday — so many on both sides of the Atlantic were talking about “Our Lady” and were transfixed by a church.

The questions remain not about whether or how France will rebuild, because money is clearly being raised, and I assume the pressure will be high to not mess with something so seemingly close to perfection. What I wonder — and pray about — is whether this shared experience that people had of watching the burning of Notre Dame will keep us from the false security and complacency that can be our lives.

It is striking to me that at the churches in Rome you always run into someone looking for money. This happens in urban areas, especially in the U.S., but in Rome the churches, sad to say, are tourist attractions even more than they are places of worship these days. That person sitting outside is not a nuisance. It’s easier here, where we probably speak the same language, but you’d be surprised how far you can get with hand gestures and a little bad Italian and how many people know just a little English. We can build great cathedrals with the way we live our lives, by how we love. Next time you are in a church with even an inch of beauty — maybe it can be today — don’t miss the opportunity to remember that this could be your last chance to begin really to live by the measure of love, reaching, with virtue, high above the mud and muck and news frenzies. So many people seemed to have their selfies to show from Notre Dame, but what about the stories of conversion?

The smoke and flames at Notre Dame, the scare at Saint Patrick’s, can light a fire under us. We won’t be here forever, and there’s much work to be done on the infrastructure of love in our lives, reaching out to anyone whose path we cross, with beauty that can be more than a vacation visit — with every word and glance of our lives.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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