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Fire-Ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral Stirs Emotions Worldwide


Just what is it about an old building in Paris that stirs such emotions? We have a perspective now from a Catholic. No one was killed when the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire this week, yet the images captured the attention of the world. And those who did not know it before quickly realized how close this building was to many hearts, including the heart of Father Jim Martin. He's a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine, which has an image of the church undamaged on its home page today. Father Martin, Good morning.

JIM MARTIN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Could you just put this building in context for us? It must be one of hundreds of cathedrals - fairly old cathedrals - just in Europe, not to mention all around the world. Where does it rank among them?

MARTIN: Well, I would say after St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, it's probably the most iconic Catholic Church in Western Europe. And so it combines religious significance, historic significance, literary, poetic, artistic - sort of all kind of summed up in that one building.

INSKEEP: Why that one building? Just because it's Paris?

MARTIN: Well, it's been there - simply put, it's been there for so long. It's kind of part of the Parisian and French consciousness. You know, France for many years was called, in a lovely phrase, the eldest daughter of the church - Catholicism was very important there. And even people who I think are not religious understand its historic and artistic significance. It's a kind of icon of Paris, an icon of the church and France.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that a little bit, if you can explain to people who are not Catholic in the audience. Those of us who were brought up Christian are aware - I mean, material things are not supposed to matter that much. And really, anywhere can be a church, at least to many people. But if you're Catholic and you walk into this particular cathedral, what comes over you?

MARTIN: Well, a sense of the history of the church. You know, it is an active church. Masses are celebrated there - funerals, baptisms, weddings. There are certain icons that are, you know, by tradition - the crown of thorns, things associated with Jesus's life, death and resurrection. And also just beautiful art that draws your mind and heart to God. The rose window, the statues, the building itself bespeaks of, you know, of beauty. And so many people working - you know, putting their hands to work to make this beautiful cathedral for God.

INSKEEP: One of the things that struck me learning about cathedrals like this as a kid is that they took centuries to build. And I realized there would be some stonemason who might be born, and work on that cathedral his whole life, and die again and never see the beginning or the end of the project.

MARTIN: Well, that's right. It reminds you of the people's faith. You know, they put their efforts to work. They spent money. And, you know, here's someone, you know, that you mentioned that sort of poured out his whole life in that cathedral. And people understand that when they walk in the door it's what they're seeing.

INSKEEP: Although this is also a building that has changed over time. I did not realize that the spire, which so notably fell in the fire, is not an original part of the building.

MARTIN: That's right. It's a relatively late addition, I think, by Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who was doing some renovations himself. And it's a reminder that, you know, as the church changes and grows and develops over the centuries, so do these cathedrals. Which, you know, reflect the tastes of the time as well.

INSKEEP: You ever visit?

MARTIN: Yes, several times. The first time as a recent college graduate on a Eurail pass back in the '80s. You know, I was pretty overwhelmed. This is before I even thought about being a Jesuit or a priest. I was drawn there naturally.

INSKEEP: Really? And did that in some way influence your later life decisions?

MARTIN: Well, I don't think Notre Dame in particular. But certainly being around beauty and knowing that people had created these beautiful things for God, and for other people to to enjoy, and just sort of draw their eyes and their minds and their hearts to God. It's very inspiring.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about this also as, in a sense, a secular building. It's on the ground. It's in a city. It's in a city that's seen a lot of history - has seen wars, it's seen the French revolution, it's seen a lot more. When you think about the history, is there a particular episode that your mind is drawn to?

MARTIN: Well, historically, I think of Napoleon crowning himself. I think that's pretty dramatic. But I - you know, what you said about the building could be said about the church too. It is in the middle of history. And the building itself represents the way that the church has endured - you know, even in a very secular country. I think, you know, the fact that you saw people praying and singing outside the church is a reminder that, you know, in the midst of the history of France is the church.

INSKEEP: Let me invite your opinion about one more thing, Father Martin, because of course people are saying they're going to rebuild. But this is a church that has evolved over time, as we've just discussed. If it were up to you, if you could choose, would you put it back exactly the way that it was or perhaps some other way?

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm a bit of a purist. I would say, yes. You know, I think we have technology - there was 3D imagery done of the church. And I would say it was pretty much perfect before it was burned down. So I would try to restore it, you know, down to the last splinter.

INSKEEP: OK. Father Martin, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Jim Martin is editor-at-large for America Magazine and also an author. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.