The mocking faux news site “The Onion” used to have a section on its web page that held “archival” headlines from its make-believe storied past. 

One front page had an etching of the Titanic with its stern high in the air above the fold. The accompanying headline all in capital letters, read: “WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR SINKS IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC.”

The tragic destruction wrought upon the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is already producing similar headlines and similar op-ed pieces, many of them ascribing God’s judgment to the fire, and suggesting all manner of metaphors that will probably give the Titanic a run for its money.

No question the fire was tragic. I was fortunate enough to visit Notre Dame on a couple of occasions and it never failed to inspire. 

But I am not looking forward to all the articles to come, many of which have already been written, about how the rebuilding will not be in keeping with a medieval gothic cathedral and the hydra-headed monster of modernism will make its presence known. 

We’ve certainly seen plenty of examples of that in many modern churches, both at home and abroad. Personally, I’m a sucker for cruciform churches, but that’s just me.

The fire has certainly spawned a cottage industry of commentators who have shoehorned all of the many metaphorical insights. 

The event is tragic enough, so I will resist compounding the sorrow with my own musings attempting to infuse monumental divine motivation upon an event that might very well have been the result of some guy plugging his French press coffee maker into an overloaded electrical circuit.

The French prime minister has vowed to rebuild the cathedral in four years, which really comes off sounding like hubris considering it took 50 times more time than that to build it in the first place.

Four years to repair a building that took two centuries to construct — think about that and what it says about the advances in human technology since ground was broken on Notre Dame in 1163 … and consider what that four-year time frame says about the state of our attention spans in 2019.

It’s evident that the story and images of a majestic cathedral “going up in flames” that dominated the cable and network news is now well on its way to the tail end of the newscasts. Be sure the next cycle of news emanating from the charred ruins of the cathedral’s roof will revolve around the controversy over what shape the new spire should assume. 

From the history of more modern churches that have been victimized by liturgy “experts,” I fear the new spire for Notre Dame will disappoint many, depending on which side of the liturgical pew one kneels on.

Under the category of everything old is new again, it was moderately amusing to see the controversy that followed the discovery of the gargoyles carved into Notre Dame’s stone exterior. They’ve been waiting around for 800 years for their 15 minutes of fame and the social network obliged. 

Bloggers and Facebook posters were scandalized by them, shocked by them, or used them as more irrefutable proof that the Church was every bad thing the Reformation claimed it was. 

The fact that the gargoyles had been there for eight centuries, primarily as clever ways to disguise rain spouts, but also with an important function of visualizing sin, got lost amidst all the expert testimony on Facebook between the Donald Trump and Joe Biden memes.

People who see Notre Dame strictly in architectural terms were either confused, or not very interested in the fact a cathedral exists as a fortress where those gargoyles dare not enter. 

Those who only think of the stained glass and flying buttresses as art fail to see the interior spaces of the cathedral as sacred beauty, existing solely for honoring God and providing the faithful a place where those doing battle with their own personal gargoyles could find solace, peace, forgiveness, and the real presence of the Lord. 

As breathtakingly beautiful as Notre Dame Cathedral was, and God willing, will be again, the reason it was built in 1163, and the reason it exists today, is to fulfill the same purpose. A purpose any Catholic church serves, whether it’s on an island in the middle of the Siene or between two freeways in the San Fernando Valley. 


Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!