Are We Too Primitive to Rebuild Notre Dame?

By John Zmirak Published on April 15, 2019

I stood there in the crowd on the street, watching the flames eat away the wooden supports of the Gothic tower. All around me were others who worshiped in that exquisite church, week after week. I’d moved into the neighborhood so I could be close to it. It featured magnificent liturgies designed to honor God with every ounce of human talent.

The liturgy was chanted, with anthems by Haydn and Mozart. The beauty of worship there was drawing young men to renounce things of the world, and enter the priesthood. And now it was burning down. The fire belched out a reek of old timber consumed by fresh new flames. We choked on the soot, and wept.

No, I’m not talking about the vast, incalculable tragedy we are seeing on TV today, with the burning of Notre Dame in Paris. I’m remembering the fire in my small, mid-19th century parish in New York, back in the early 90s. But it was a Notre Dame to us.

The crumbling, blackened windows, lovingly inscribed with the names of immigrant donors. The water-drenched gaping stones, which Irish builders had carted by horse from the left-overs of Grand Central Station. The carved wooden stalls where we’d confessed our sins, and gotten pardon. The lovingly carved marble altar, where soldiers shipping off to World Wars I and II had marked their last Mass on our shores. The pulpit, where Archbishop Fulton Sheen had preached to ordinary garment workers, secretaries, and printers, instead of to millions on television. Gone, in billows of flame.

The Lost Arts of Love

What broke our hearts more, far more, than the fire? What sears our souls today, as we watch little pieces of the Middle Ages fall to the Paris cobblestones? We knew no one would replace it. We knew that the Church wouldn’t build this way today. Not for the reasons you hear. “No one knows that craftsmanship anymore, it’s a lost art, can’t do it.” Nonsense. Gothic churches can be rebuilt because they have been. A Gothic church is slowly still going up in Morningside Heights, St. John the Divine.

Maybe some old techniques have been forgotten, and in a few places technology might have to fill the gap. But exquisite churches that sing in stone and glass to the glory of God are perfectly possible. Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant. Or lying.

We do lack key domains of knowledge for rebuilding Notre Dame. The calculus of faith. The engineering of virtue. The physics of man’s love for God. We’re even forgetting the brute biology required for replicating our species.

Lying because he doesn’t think such churches are worth the effort. He sees them as ancient follies, relics of times when gullible peasants gave gladly of time and treasure to make something gorgeous for God. To create exquisite spaces where they had as much claim as the King to stand and raise their eyes, then search their hearts. Spaces where millers, spinners, gleaners, thieves and beggars could bask in a glimpse of heaven.

A Low, Dismal Structure

We knew that our church could be rebuilt, brick for brick. But we knew it wouldn’t be. I approached wealthy non-Catholic donors — generous, mostly Jewish lovers of historic preservation. They offered to spearhead a fund drive, out of love for historic New York. We approached the pastor, in his still-standing rectory. As priests too often do, he spoke to us laymen as if to a precocious four-year-old who’d grabbed his father’s service revolver.

And just as we expected, he sold the air-rights to the once grand Gothic church, cashed a nice-sized check and put up a low, dismal structure that would serve quite well as a regional bank in the suburbs. I went in once or twice, but I couldn’t stand it. All I saw were the ghosts of beauty, reflected on chintzy sheet-rock and shabby plaster. When that pastor was found in a hot-tub with a woman whose annulment he’d arranged, things made a little more sense.

We Modern Primitives

We do lack key domains of knowledge for rebuilding Notre Dame. The calculus of faith. The engineering of virtue. The physics of man’s love for God. We’re even forgetting the brute biology required for replicating our species. We’re sinking into primitivism, clasping our iPhones and gaping at 12th-century buildings which we’ve forgotten how to make. It’s like some science fiction novel, where survivors of an apocalypse gather round the old machines that still operate, and superstitiously worship them. Or else, out of terror, wreck them.

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Yes, we could rebuild Notre Dame. But will we? I’m grateful to learn that the French State, not the Church, owns the property. While that’s the result of a tyrannical theft in 1905, today it’s a blessing. The secular French government’s ownership of churches spared them the vicious, hateful renovations so many bad priests inflicted on their parishes in the 70s. We know that Pope Francis can’t turn the site into some Muslim refugee center, in a grandiose gesture of pseudo-Christian “charity.”

Some have suggested that secular France will rebuild it, brick for brick, if only out of national pride and a craving for tourism. The motives don’t matter. Not every stonemason who donated time to work on Notre Dame was a saint. Some of the finest churches in Florence were built by guilt-haunted money-lenders. St. Peter’s in Rome was paid for by the indulgences whose sale so scandalized Martin Luther. All is mixed and muddled in our fallen world.

The Fear of Beauty

But I fear we don’t even want such beauty enough to recreate it. It frightens us with its demands. As God does, which explains why we flee Him. We’d rather keep our eyes firmly fixed on the husks that we feed to the pigs than think about the Father.

Watch, just watch. If some devout billionaire, or kindly non-Catholic French patriot, donated every dollar of the billions it would cost, you know what some bishop would say? He’d echo the words of one of the Church’s very first bishops: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12)

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