When I first saw the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames on Monday two thoughts flashed through my mind.
This is somehow a metaphor for the state of the Catholic Church today.
And the site of it all was just too much to take.
I understand how Notre Dame is a symbol of France and an icon of Western Civilization, so seeing it in flames is just too hard to comprehend.
Notre Dame is point zero, the place from which all distances in Paris are measured. There exists no greater example of the great gothic cathedrals built to express the glory of God, with the exception of perhaps St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
As the great composers created their masterpieces of music in praise of the creator, so the great cathedrals were designed and built. And this one, in the heart Paris, was perhaps the greatest of all.
Yet at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, the great cathedral was more tourist attraction than Catholic Church that served a parish, a community or a people of faith.
Most Catholics in the West describe themselves as lapsed Catholics, or born-Catholics. In other words, people who took away more culture than faith. Only 39 percent of self-identified Catholics attend weekly Mass, according to a Gallup poll released last year.
When we first visited Notre Dame, it seemed more museum than church. We passed it every day on our way from our hotel to the Metro and back again. One day we went in. It seemed dark and foreboding.
As we lingered in an aisle admiring the small side alcoves, we were nearly run down by a tour group. It seemed no place for worship.
Already with a shrinking membership of self-identified Catholics in the United States and even fewer regular church-goers, the church is in crisis.
Add to poor attendance the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the future looks dim. With the latest round of the sex abuse scandal, this time focused on the failings of the hierarchy and the bishops to come clean on their behavior and, it all just seems too much to bear.
Not a week goes by where Catholics I know bemoan the current state of the church, complain about another boring Mass where few sing the songs, vocalize the responses, or even recall the sermon.
After a week of passing by Notre Dame every day, we stopped on a quiet afternoon and looked more closely at every detail of the great cathedral and tried to take in whatever lessons it offered.
I soon realized that all the details — from the statues of the saints to the spire and the bell towers to the rose windows — weren’t just architectural wonders.
The cathedral is also a prayer and an act of worship to the God who created the universe and everything in it. It was all a matter of perspective, and we could choose how to look at it.
Later in the day as the flames died down, I finally saw signs of hope in the video being streamed from Paris. There were Parisians on their knees, singing the Ave Maria and praying the Rosary.
Only such faith can build great cathedrals.
Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist.