On April 15, I as many others heard of the fire that consumed much of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Like many other Catholics, my social media news feeds lit up with sadness from friends who have visited the beautiful cathedral and were sharing memories from their own experiences. I would guess that I know dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have visited Notre Dame Cathedral. This landmark of the Catholic faith was a place they took a pilgrimage to, and was part of a larger memory, a memory that included a trip with family and friends that brought them awe, and that maybe gave them a larger connection to their faith. It was a relic, and for those keeping count, I dare you to think of a dozen other relics in the Catholic faith that hold the same importance. I personally, can think of only a few other Catholic relics that do, and none outside of Jerusalem or Rome.
With that said, it holds no surprise that millions, if not billions of people care about this fire. This disaster destroyed a place of worship that for many hold more importance than where they attend Mass on Sunday. Many of those people are privileged. They have the money to take that pilgrimage to Paris, or Rome, or Jerusalem. They then have the ability to put their money where their heart is and donate to the rebuilding of this relic, of a place that meant so much to them, or maybe to their family members, and maybe a billion other people in the world. I can tell you with a good amount of certainty that if my home parish was set ablaze that I would reach deep inside my pockets to rebuild it. Not for the building, but for what it stands for. Because that parish to me means much more than concrete, bricks, and wood. It means community, it means consistency, it is a place where I feel God’s presence. The Notre Dame Cathedral isn’t just bricks. It’s a place where people found religion, re-found religion, felt God’s presence. That means something to them.
Within twenty-four hours, $600 million was raised to rebuild the Cathedral, and my social media newsfeed once again lit up, this time with anger and disbelief. How did so many wealthy people spend so much money to help rebuild a building while the people of God are suffering? We could take that money and end hunger in the world for an entire month, or make sure Flint, Michigan has clean drinking water one hundred times over, or fund ⅔ of Chicago Public Schools for an entire year. This doesn’t even begin to think about the massacre at Christian churches that killed 209 people and destroyed multiple churches in Sri Lanka, or the three Louisiana black churches that were burned down by an arsonist enacting hate crimes. There are so many positive forces that $600 million can do, and yet we as a society, we as the privileged do nothing until a moment that personally affects us, our memories, our personal beliefs.
A few years ago, I ran across an article called “The Challenge of Easter” in the Wall Street Journal by Fr. James Martin. If you have a paid subscription to the Wall Street Journal, I would highly recommend reading it. However, my personal favorite quote and paragraph that really wraps up the article is, “What did Jesus think when he walked back from the wealthy city to his poor hometown? How could his heart not have been moved by how the poor were forced to live in Nazareth? How could he have seen Mary and Joseph at their backbreaking chores and not have been grieved by the glaring disparities in wealth? When Jesus witnessed injustices—the shunning of certain of the sick, the mistreatment of the powerless and gross material inequalities—he was inspired to preach against them not simply out of divine inspiration but because his human heart was, as the Gospels often say, ‘moved with pity’.” Jesus’ reactions to the poor and marginalized that he saw throughout his mission wasn’t compassion out of some Godly power, it was a truly human compassion of having grown up in a poor city, of having seen others cast aside and forgotten through society and knowing what it feels like to be on the outskirts as a poor child living with a simple carpenter as a father. However, most people who are privileged in our society live in a bubble, never seeing the poor and the marginalized in their own community. Last year, members of the Chicago community protested on two highways, the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive, in order to get the attention of the privileged. So many with money never go to the south side of Chicago, where the majority of the poverty in this city is located, unless it is through a highway, so they needed to disrupt the status quo. They needed to shout, “See me.”
I stated earlier that there are probably a dozen places in the world that are seen as holy or important to the Catholic faith as the Notre Dame Cathedral. Yet, there are nearly eight billion people in this world, so it seems like we as a society have made it easier to see some of those eight billion people as dispensable. I was moved by the words of my old colleague and friend Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University Chicago when he said, “You have a short list of friends and beloveds. If the world claims one, you will hurt. Likewise, if the world decimates the thousand-year-old Cathedral of Notre Dame, we feel the loss. If someone defiles your local house of worship, you feel offense. If racism in America troubles you, the arson of Louisiana Black Churches will trouble you, more so if the accused arsonist is the child of a police deputy. If, however, someone destroys some other house of worship for another community on the other side of the planet, you would not notice.” What will it take for us to notice? That is what every single religious prophet has called from us. To see every person as holy, as sacred. I just wonder what I can do to take up Fr. Martin’s “Challenge of Easter”. To see every human being with dignity and love the way Christ did and some many others have.