The Wi-Fi on my flight from Rome to Newark wasn’t working, so phones were buzzing about Notre Dame 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 something we couldn’t control on live television. Before we knew much of anything, including the cause of the fire or the extent of the damage, that seemed to be an instant lesson.
I’ve never been to Paris, so I’ve never been to the cathedral there. But on Monday I did the closest thing I could after I cleared customs: I went to the cathedral in Newark. The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is 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 may have run into the man who would later be arrested in my home cathedral of Saint Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. He had to be removed by police at the Sacred Heart cathedral for refusing to leave on Monday. On Wednesday, he was caught trying to set fire to “America’s Parish Church” over the Hudson.
I mention this all not only because it hits a little close to home, but because the reactions people have had to the Notre Dame fire are a sign of hope in the world. We live at time when so many of us seem to be living lives as partial spectators, upset about things we have no control over, letting our moods and even health be impacted by politics and the churning tides of the news cycle. Not only is there more to life than the Mueller report, there’s even more to life than people’s takes on it.
Churches are full of stories -- about the people who gave from their earnings to help pay for them, about the skill that created a gift to God and man to help us reach to heaven. They continue to be full of stories. It seemed to me a miracle of God that during Holy Week so many people on both sides of the Atlantic were talking about “Our Lady” and were transfixed by a church.
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 -- but about whether this shared experience people had of watching the burning of Notre Dame will keep us from falling into the false security and complacency that can dominate our lives.
One thing that strikes me about churches in Rome is that you always run into someone looking for money outside them. This happens in urban areas in America, but in Rome the churches are tourist attractions (even more than they are places of worship these days, sadly). The beggars we see sitting outside churches should not be considered nuisances. They should be opportunities to learn about and help another human being, chances to reflect on the shared miracle of life and the obligations that miracle brings with it.
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 it could be your last chance to really begin to live by the measure of love, reaching high above the muck of social media and the outrage machine of cable news. 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 St. Patrick's -- these 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.