We Must Rebuild it as it was Before

The following is an abridged version of a conference given by Robert Cardinal Sarah at Église Saint François-Xavier in Paris, May 25, 2019, just hours after he visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Robert Cardinal Sarah pauses in front of the statue of the Virgin of Paris during his visit to the cathedral in May 2019. Photo: twitter.com/Robert Cardinal Sarah
Robert Cardinal Sarah pauses in front of the statue of the Virgin of Paris during his visit to the cathedral in May 2019. Photo: twitter.com/Robert Cardinal Sarah


Just hours ago I was at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. As I entered the gutted church, and contemplated its ruined vaults, I could not help but see in it a symbol of the situation of Western civilization and of the Church in Europe.

It is a sad fact: today the Church seems to be engulfed in flames on all sides. We see her ravaged by a conflagration much more destructive than the one that razed the cathedral of Notre-Dame. What is this fire? It is our loss of faith and the spirit of faith, a losing sight of the objectivity of faith and thus a loss of the knowledge of God.

Pointing at Heaven

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame had a spire that was like a finger stretching out toward heaven, pointing us toward God. In the heart of Paris, it spoke to every man about the ultimate meaning of human life. Indeed this spire symbolized the one and only reason for the Church’s existence: to lead us to God, to point us toward him.

A Church that is not pointed toward God is a Church collapsing, already in the throes of death. The spire of the cathedral of Paris has fallen, and this is no coincidence! Notre-Dame of Paris symbolizes the whole West, buckling and crumbling after turning away from God. It symbolizes the great temptation of Western Christians: no longer turned toward God, turning inward upon themselves, they are perishing.

The great cathedrals of the West could have been built only by men of great faith and great humility who were profoundly happy to know that they were sons of God. They are like a song of joy, a hymn to God’s glory sculpted in stone and painted in glass. They are the work of sons who love and adore their heavenly Father.

All were glad to carve into stone an expression of their faith and love for God, and not for the glory of their own name. Their art works were meant to glory and praise God alone.

The Church should be like a cathedral. Everything in her should sing to the glory of God. She must unceasingly direct our gaze toward him, like the spire of Notre-Dame pointed toward heaven. My dear friends, we must rebuild the cathedral. We must rebuild it exactly as it was before. We do not need to invent a new Church. We have to let ourselves be converted so that the Church can shine once more, so that the Church can be once more a cathedral that sings God’s glory and leads men to him. What is the first thing to do?

The Vaults: Adoration

We must get on our knees. A cathedral is first of all a place where men can kneel, a cathedral is where God is present in the Most Holy Sacrament. The most urgent task is to recover a sense of adoration. The loss of a sense of adoration of God is the source of all the fires and crises that are rocking the world and the Church.

Try to imitate the humility of God and let your heart, your will, your intelligence, your self-love and your whole interior being kneel. It is God’s exclusive domain. A man on his knees is more powerful than the world. He is an unshakable rampart against the atheism and folly of men. A man on his knees makes Satan tremble in all his pride. Your mission is great. It is to “prevent the world from destroying itself.”

I speak especially to you who are sick, weak of body or mind, you who suffer a handicap, whom society finds useless and wants to suppress: when you pray, when you adore, you are great. You have a particular dignity because you uniquely resemble Christ crucified.

A cathedral no longer makes sense if no one goes there to adore, to prostrate themselves before God’s face. A cathedral no longer makes sense if the liturgy we celebrate there is not entirely meant to orient us toward God, toward the cross. Therefore, our cathedral needs priests who will celebrate the Liturgy of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours in it.

If the people of God are to adore, then priests and bishops must be the first adorers. They are called to hold themselves constantly before God’s gaze. Their existence is meant to be an unending prayer, a permanent liturgy.

I want to repeat to you priests and religious who are hidden and forgotten, you whom society often despises, you who are faithful to the promises of your ordination, you make the powers of this world tremble. You remind them that nothing can resist the force present in the gift of your life for the truth. You remind them of the vital and indispensable presence of God for the future of humanity. Your presence is intolerable to the prince of lies. Without you, dear brother priests and consecrated people, humanity would be less great, less radiant, and less beautiful. Without you our cathedrals would be useless buildings without life.

The Pillars: Catholic Doctrine

And then, dear friends, what else does our cathedral need? It needs solid pillars to support the vaults. What are these pillars? What foundation is needed to support the graceful slenderness of the Gothic rib-vaults? The Catholic doctrine we have received from the apostles is the only solid foundation we can find.

Our unity is forged around the truth of Catholic doctrine and the moral teaching of the Church. Do not fear. What greater gift is there for humanity than the truth of the Gospel? What more precious treasure than the light of the Gospel and the Wisdom of God, who is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:24)?

Jesus himself told us: “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” What an honor, but also what a responsibility. What a duty. To renounce being the salt of the earth is to condemn the world to remain bland and tasteless. To renounce being the light of the world is to condemn it to darkness and abandon it to the shadows of its rebellion against God. We must not let this happen.

Indeed let us turn toward the world: in order to bring it the only light that does not deceive. When the Church turns toward the world, this cannot entail that she hides the scandal of the cross, but only that she makes it accessible once again in its naked reality.

Dear friends, I was deeply moved spiritually by a photograph published the day after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. In the photo, the interior of the church is visible, heaped with debris and still smoking. But above these heaps of shattered stones, the luminous cross installed by Cardinal Lustiger is still standing. “Stat crux, dum volvitur orbis—the cross stands while the world turns.” The world is turning and falling, only the cross remains stable and shows us the way to salvation. Only the truth of the cross remains, the truth of Catholic doctrine.

Faith is not a merchant’s booth where we choose the fruit and vegetables we like. When we receive it, it is God that we receive, whole and entire. I solemnly call upon Christians to love the dogmas and articles of faith, to cherish them. Love our catechism. If we accept it with our hearts and not only with our lips, then the formulas of faith let us enter into true communion with God.

Remember the clear and firm testimony of Peter: “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved, than by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 4:10-12). Let us think of all the Christians of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who are butchered for the name of Jesus.

Our faith informs our love for God. To defend the faith is to defend the weakest and simplest, and permit them to love God in truth. Dear friends, we must burn with love for our faith. The day we no longer burn with love for our faith, the world will be cold, deprived of its most precious good. It is our task to defend and announce the faith.

The faith enlightens our family, professional and cultural life, not only our spiritual life. In the West, some call for tolerance or secularity, and impose a form of schizophrenia between private and public life. Faith has its place in public debate. We must speak of God, not to impose him but to reveal and propose him. God is an indispensable light to mankind.

The rose window in the north transept of Notre-Dame
The rose window in the north transept of Notre-Dame. Photo: wikimedia.org/Bradley Weber


The Stained Glass: Fellowship with the Saints

My dear friends, to finish our cathedral, we still need the stained glass. The windows let in the luminous presence, joyful and multi-colored, of the saints in heaven.

We need saints who dare to look at all things with the eyes of faith, who dare to be enlightened by the light of God. My friends, will we be these saints the world awaits? You, Christians of today, will you be the saints and martyrs the nations groan for, will you lead a new evangelization? Your homelands are thirsting for Christ. Do not disappoint them. The Church entrusts this mission to you.

I think we are at a turning point in the history of the Church. The Church needs a profound, radical reform that must begin by a reform of the life of her priests. But all these means are at the service of sanctity. The Church is holy in herself. Our sins and our worldly concerns prevent her holiness from diffusing itself. It is time to put aside all these burdens and allow the Church to finally appear as God made her.

Some believe that the history of the Church is marked by structural reforms. I am sure that it is the saints who change history. The structures follow afterwards, and do nothing other than perpetuate what the saints brought about. When God calls, he demands something radical. He goes all the way, down to the root.

Dear friends, we are not called to be mediocre Christians. No, God is calling our whole being, asking for a total gift even to the martyrdom of our body and soul. He is calling us to sanctity: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2).

Today from the bottom of my heart as a pastor, I wish to invite all Christians to conversion. It is a very simple decision, both interior and concrete. It will change our life in its smallest details. It is not about going off to war. It is not about denouncing enemies. It is not about attacking or criticizing. It is about staying firmly faithful to Jesus Christ, to his Gospel and to the mystery of the Church.

Though we cannot change the world, we can be changed ourselves. If each person would take this resolution humbly, then the system of lies would crumble of its own accord, because its only strength is the place we give to it in ourselves.

Work to stabalize the vaults and flying buttresses was in progress over the summer. Photo: Pool AFP via AP Images
Work to stabilize the vaults and flying buttresses was in progress over the summer. Photo: Pool AFP via AP Images

Build the Cathedral

My dear friends, the West has built awesome cathedrals. Today they are in danger of becoming museums without a soul. But the day when the cathedrals will have become mere carcasses of stone will be a sad day, and the world will lose all sense and purpose.

Let me conclude by citing Benedict XVI: “Man needs an appeal, addressed to his soul, that can carry and sustain him. He needs a place for his soul. That is what a cathedral symbolizes. But a building only becomes a cathedral thanks to men who construct this space for the soul, men who transform the stones into a cathedral and thus open for everyone a way to the infinite, an appeal without which man suffocates. Humanity needs ‘cathedral builders’ whose pure and disinterested life makes God credible.”

My dear friends, I invite you, for my part, to be these cathedral builders.

The full address, offered for the launch of Cardinal Sarah’s book The Day is Now Far Spent, can be found at Catholic World Report (June 21, 2019). The address was translated from the French by Zachary Thomas.

His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.