What Notre Dame Means to Me, a Lifelong Catholic

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I almost didn’t go to Paris.

We were only a few weeks into our semester abroad in
Italy, and I was still struggling with culture shock. Even though Europe was
just as beautiful as I had always hoped, I was still frightened to venture too
far from the comfort of our quiet apartment complex atop one of Rome’s many
hills. 

We had a free weekend coming up and I still hadn’t
made any plans to travel like the rest of my classmates. My two roommates
invited me to come with them to France—a brief trip to Paris and Lisieux. I
don’t know why, but I said yes.

I will be forever grateful that I did.

When our early morning flight touched down in France,
I was completely disoriented. Between the three of us, we only knew enough
French to order food and ask for basic directions. I tried to order coffee at a
Starbucks in broken French while we waited for a shuttlebus. Somehow I ended up
with hot chocolate instead.

We boarded our bus and made our way to Paris. Our first
stop: Notre Dame Cathedral.

As a lifelong Catholic, catching sight of the looming
towers of Notre Dame was almost unreal. This cathedral, for me, had always been
a place from a long time ago in a land far away. Yet here it was, in all its
glory.

It was early morning, so we had to squint in the
sunlight and crane our necks to observe the towers and striking steeple. It was
also cold, early winter, off-season for tourists, so the square was relatively
empty. It felt like we had the place to ourselves. We took a few photos and
resolved to go inside later.

After walking along the Seine River, exploring the Shakespeare
and Company bookshop, and sampling some authentic French pastries, we returned
to Notre Dame for Mass. Tourists had to pay money to access the museum part of
the cathedral, but since we were there to pray, we were able to go inside for
free.

Walking beneath the huge Gothic arches and past the stunning stained glass windows, I could not believe this church was made of tangible wood and stone. I was so used to encountering the cathedral as a painting or pixelated image on a computer screen that I could not fathom its scale and detail in person. It was resplendent. It transcended everyday experience and evoked the eternal.

It was resplendent. It transcended everyday experience and evoked the eternal.

As Mass began, my roommates and I realized we were
seated behind a young French family—father and mother, daughter and son. The
little ones could not have been more than a few years old. I observed them
throughout the Mass, as these parents lovingly showed their children how to
make the sign of the cross and showed them when to sit and stand and kneel.

For the first time in months, I felt at home. This
image of love, which could just as easily have been found in any other church
in any other part of the world, felt so personal. I smiled at this family
during the sign of peace and thanked God for them. 

Immediately after Mass, my roommates and I knelt to
say some prayers of thanksgiving after Communion, and we were surprised that
everyone else around us was staying too.

What we didn’t realize is that, during Lent, pilgrims
at Notre Dame have an opportunity to venerate the Crown of Thorns, a relic
believed to be the true crown of thorns worn by Christ during his Passion.
Suddenly, we were enveloped in sweet incense, and the priest brought out the
crown.

I immediately began to cry. I had frequently meditated
on Christ’s crowning with thorns that semester as a prayer for a special
intention. And here it was, the very crown! I could not believe it. It had to
be Providence.

Soon thereafter, security ushered us out of the
church. I distinctly remember casting a final glance at one of the glittering
rose windows, and thinking to myself, “I have to come back.”

I thought Notre Dame would always be there, waiting
for me. I still cannot fathom what we have lost after this devastating fire.

Yet there is hope. 

The medieval stonework preserved the most sacred part
of the church, the sanctuary, and a brave chaplain accompanied firemen to
rescue the Crown of Thorns and the Blessed Sacrament. Even after the fire, the
most essential elements were preserved.

Even from the ashes, Notre Dame reminds us which direction is home. We do not spend hundreds of years building grand cathedrals “just because.” These sacred spaces bring us closer to God. They remind us where we come from and where we are going.

Even from the ashes, Notre Dame reminds us which direction is home.

The overwhelming sense of grief shared worldwide after
the fire is a testament to this truth. Notre Dame is more than a landmark. It
bears spiritual meaning. How fitting that this should have happened during Holy
Week, when we meditate on death being overcome by new life.

That is why we must rebuild—not out of nostalgia, but for
the sake of what really matters.

I will be forever grateful that I had the chance to
experience the beauty of Notre Dame. Yet I am even more moved by the project
that lays ahead of us.

To rebuild is to refocus our lives on what is most
important, what I found at the cathedral—family, friendship, and most of all,
faith. I, for one, am eager to begin.