I worshipped the goddess of reason — until I met the God of Mercy in Notre Dame

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by Charles Lewis

I am watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn on television from my living room in Toronto. I want to look away but I cannot. I have watched the spire collapse. I now see the glow from inside the church. It is bright orange. Now I realize it is Holy Week. And I think I hear the commentator say the historic church will be gone forever. It is too awful.

Tens of thousands of people around the globe are now thinking of their own visits to Notre Dame. Millions since it was built in 1163 went to their graves with their own stories of being inside its hallowed walls.

I have visited many churches in Europe but perhaps outside of St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame holds the most meaning.

My wife and I went to Paris in September 2006 to celebrate our 10th anniversary. There was no profound plan: Eat good food, absorb the gorgeous architecture and see the sites. Everyone should see Paris.

We stayed near the Jardin du Luxembourg. We could see rooftops from our room. The view was postcard-worthy. There was an amazing restaurant around the corner. The gardens were a dream. We bought wine for the room and cheeses and bread.

We walked for miles and miles. Eventually we made our way to Notre Dame, as most tourists do. We climbed the narrow spiral staircase, all 387 steps. I remember talking to a woman who was having a panic attack halfway up the stairs. I used to have terrible panic attacks so I was able to be reassuring. We were rewarded with a spectacular view at the top.

Then we went into the church proper.

Let me say this first. At this point I identified with no religion, though I considered myself spiritual. Religion seemed unnecessary. Jesus never spoke about building giant edifices. I used to think the money could be spent on something better. Churches were about rules. To me, sin was subjective.

In a word, I was clueless.

When we walked into the church, I remember being impressed by the number of people and the silence. It is rare to see large gatherings of people with no sound. I saw others dip their hands in the holy water, and I did the same. I am not sure why I did.

Then I saw something that has stuck with me all these years. The confessional, as I see it in my mind’s eye, was clear glass. I was surprised that I could see into it. There was a beautiful young woman, perfectly dressed, kneeling.

I think the hyperbeauty that struck me about her had something to do with holiness. Here was this woman confessing for anyone to see. Who does that?

At first I felt odd looking, but then it was hard not to look. The scene before me could have been a painting.

For many years I had been attracted to the faith. But I would keep talking myself out of it with what I thought was reason. If you had told me faith was higher than reason, I would have scoffed.

Once we left the church, we went for ice cream and then walked more and more. I did not obsess about what I saw, but it wormed its way into me.

I visited a number of churches over those two weeks. But that interior scene in Notre Dame is what I remember best. There was something about the rawness, the honesty, of someone confessing that I had never seen before.

I knew that she would find relief from her sins. But what about me? Who was I to bring my sins to? To logic? To reason?

By the time the trip was over, something was stirring in me. I knew for certain that I needed to be baptized and start to live another life, a Christian life — which is what I did, though it took a bit of time.

Thanks be to God for that trip to Notre Dame.

Pray for the people of Paris and France.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash