At 6:50 pm CET on April 15, the roof of Notre Dame de Paris caught on fire.
The cathedral was quickly evacuated while over 400 firefighters were mobilized on the ground. Within the first hour, the main spire (symbol of God’s grace) succumbed to the flames as did the 1,000-year-old beams framing the roof. Unable to use helicopters or airplanes for fear of destroying the structure, firefighters worked all through the night to save the structures, the bell towers and what treasures they could. As I write this, the fire was just officially put out, nearly 16 hours after it began.
At this present writing, there are no casualties, and an active investigation has begun.
The cathedral was under scaffolding as renovation work was underway, but all the workers had finished their day at 5:30 pm, over an hour before the fire began. The reactions on social media were almost immediate, including former French president François Holland and American President Donald Trump. There have been many words, hopeful, political, conflictual and some desperate. My favorite so far has come from the professional footballer from the Paris Saint-Germain team Neymar tweeted Pray for France1
Though there are tragedies all over the globe right now, some more wretched and costly in human lives, it’s not easy to know how to respond. This tragedy has shaken the faith of many, even in the first hours, we heard even the news anchors asking deep questions on air. The first step for me personally was wrapping my head around it. This really happened. Our church meets in a rented room a stone throw from the cathedral. I saw it so often it became a part of the background as I was more concentrated on traffic, but then there were those moments, often in a traffic jam, I would look up and be amazed all over again by the majesty of the building. We’ve done outreach there; I’ve given historical tours there, brought family and friends while never tiring of the architecture, wood panels that pictured the Gospel story or the stained glass windows. The arch-bishop of Paris, Monseigneur Michel Aupetit, consoled the French people, reminding them that the soul of France has not been touched and this place will continue to be one of faith.2 As I write, there are plans in motion to rebuild the cathedral.
All this being said, how should we as protestants react?
I believe our first response should be compassion. Though we do not follow decrees of the Vatican, we can express our solidarity in our commune heritage. Notre Dame de Paris was built over the years 1163-1345. At that time, there were no Protestants; it was just the church. Though the cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by Monseigneur Maurice de Sully, 3 the interior contained art that clearly depicted the Gospel story; the outside was decorated in a reminder of the Kings of Judah and the Judgement of Christ. Though we are stunned by the physical loss of a historical monument, we know that our faith is not based on such things.
“As you come to Him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
I believe our next reaction after the shock has passed, is to pray. Neymar was right. For our Catholic friends all over the world, this is devastating, especially during Holy Week. We can be a comfort; we can pray, pray for them. We can remind them that in a few days we will both celebrate the day Jesus rose from the dead. Therein lies a greater hope, one that can never be shaken, burned or destroyed by anything on this earth or in any spiritual realm because Jesus is Lord of all. It’s with this in mind, that I would invite you to pray for France, pray for your Catholic neighbors, and be ready to offer a word of consolation and hope in our Risen Lord.