Like many people around the world, particularly Catholics, I was greatly saddened by the terrible fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, “Our Lady” in Paris. As the fire was burning out of control, many French leaders commented about the importance the beautiful edifice had become to the Parisian people, all of France, and much of Western civilization. Comments made by Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, in particular, made an impression on me; “It is the Catholics who make the Cathedral of Notre Dame live: it is not a museum!” He continued, “If so many people come there, it’s because it’s a living space, enlivened by the Catholics…the word Catholic comes from the Greek meaning universal. We are here to proclaim a universal fraternity based on love.”
Oh my dear Lord, I was so sad that day, as I have visited the magnificent sanctuary many times, always saying a very thorough and heartfelt confession and then attending Mass. Her beauty is marvelous and I have always felt the presence of the Christ, surrounded by the extraordinary stained-glass, the many iconic artifacts, and the obvious musty smell of old wood. Little did I know that she, “Our Lady,” was so vulnerable.
From birth, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I always felt, even as a small child, proud to be part of the Mother Church of Christianity. My faith grew in my early teens as I watched my paternal grandfather show his love for Jesus, the Church, the Blessed Mother, and all that we stand for. Every night before turning in or preparing for a long day of work in the morning, my grandfather would light candles on either side of a magnificent crucifix and, of course, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He would then hit his knees and beg for forgiveness for even the most minor things, even bad thoughts or inappropriate language. He would also bring tremendous gratitude to the Almighty for his beautiful simple life and for all of us. Yes, being a Catholic, is not what I do, it is who I am!
As I started to come of age, I always stayed close to my Church but by any measure, did not live a saintly life. In many ways I have struggled through a life of addiction and consequently destroyed many relationships. It wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that I started to live a life that God had intended for me all along. Prior to this, I had enjoyed some fairly substantial success in business and had made many friends along the way, but all the time my highest priorities were seeking wealth, power, pleasure, and honor.
I was also seeking “truth” through a newfound love of the Gospels, the Beatitudes, the study of Thomas Merton, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. John Paul II, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer. But it wasn’t until I was able to surrender my will and learn how to use the tools at my disposal that I was able to understand what is really important in life, the love of all humanity and most of all my beloved family. It was Saint Paul who told us, “If I have not loved, I am nothing.”
Like the magnificence of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I view our church as the most important and extraordinary intellectual institution in the history of man. Our faith is obviously centered on Christ, but enriched by the men and women who lived with Him, ate with Him, walked with Him, and participated in his short time of ministry, culminating with His Passion and Resurrection.
Through the centuries, the richness grew through the great men and women who centered their entire lives on the Trinity alone: Saints Augustine, Aquinas, and Catherine of Siena, GK Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Dorothy Day and of course the apostle to the Gentiles, Saint Paul. The art, architecture and music added to its beauty. Just think of the masterpieces of Michelangelo, including the Pieta, the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel and the dome of St. Peter’s…Rafael, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Johann Christian Bach (himself a convert) and so many more. Although beautiful, our church and it’s leadership have never been perfect, as we have largely been led and managed by men, fallible sinners, everyone.
Indeed, though my Church is great, it’s hierarchy, the clergy, consecrated laypeople, and, frankly, all of us are equally vulnerable to the presence of evil. The multiple scandals of the last 20 years can only be explained, in my opinion, as a result of allowing the Devil to permeate the souls of the individuals that have perpetrated these horrific acts. For a “holy” man, or woman, to attack a child typifies the highest expression of evil. Covering those sins so others will not discover them is equally depraved. Yes, my blessed and beloved Church is burning! Like Notre Dame, I never realized just how vulnerable she is…
What is the way forward? Like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Church will need to be structurally rebuilt stronger than ever. In the days and hours after the fire was under control, many institutions and individuals pledged, by some estimates, over $1 billion. Rebuilding “Our Lady” will be tedious, requiring expert sacred arts architects and the finest craftsman of the 21st century. But she will be rebuilt! While undertaking the process, her mission must be restated and clarified; she is a sacred sanctuary, honoring the fact that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the son of the living God.
I can imagine, for example, that the designers will want to maintain much of the 14th-century beauty and will use wooden roof trusses once again, yet will fortify them with steel. This steel will not be visible but will strengthen the roof and make it less susceptible to destruction in the future. This is what needs to happen in the universal church. Her mission has and should always be centered on the joy, love, and obedience to our Lord, but we must be reestablished as a far more transparent and credible institution, never fearing to expose our very soul to the world. We must all participate if we are to be successful. How can we ever regain our position as moral compass to the world, if our own houses are not in order?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that rebuilding and strengthening the “universal” Church is possible and may already be underway. Many strong intellectual and skilled leaders are in place. This may sound naïvely optimistic, but I believe that the recent scandals, like the terrible fire may actually bring people back to the faith of their childhood. God’s Love is a blessed and wonderful motivator.
As I said, we all must participate by simply being kind and through service to our less fortunate brothers and sisters, no matter where they come from or how they worship. God loving people have a common humanity and recognition that we are to honor an awesome God. We must also redouble our efforts to love and embrace our priests who continue to obey to their vows and be of service to all selflessly. In the recent scandal, it is the obedient priests who suffer greatly, as they have devoted their entire life to consecrating the Eucharist and caring for all of us. This is not to diminish in any way the tragic impact on the many victims over the decades. Each story is heartbreaking and affirms for me the existence of evil.
Please Lord, above all, help us rebuild “The Lady” and Your Church, so we can embrace the most vulnerable around the world, and continue our mission here on earth, serving You and You alone, I will praise You with my every heartbeat, God willing, into eternity.
By Mark Castillo, St. Patrick in Redding