The Earthly Church

July 20 2019 | by

APRIL 15, 2019 will be remembered as the day when the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned. Begun in 1163 on a small island in the Seine River, Paris, the Cathedral took 182 years to build. Considered a jewel of Gothic architecture, the Cathedral had, in recent years, been under watch for possible fire. Despite surveillance and fire alarms, tragedy struck. In just 12 hours from April 15 to April 16, the Cathedral suffered major damage from a fire that consumed the spire and most of the roof. The flames damaged the interior of the structure and some works of art stored there. More than 400 firefighters battled the flames, mostly from inside the structure, while over 100 additional workers removed precious objects. Because renovations had been underway, many pieces of art and statuary had been removed and were spared damage. All the Cathedral relics were preserved. Plans for rebuilding are underway.

Many commentators reflected on the tragedy. On one internet site, Fr. Joseph Gill, a priest of the diocese of Bridgeport, CT, shared the following reflection: “Today, I can do no better than cite three reflections I found on Facebook regarding the tragic Notre Dame fire: First, what survived from the fire? The cross, the altar, the Crown of Thorns. Consider this for your own life: when our lives will be burned up and everything turned to ash, what will survive? Will it be the Crosses that made you holy, the altar where you offered yourself to God as a living sacrifice, the Crown of Thorns in humility you wore that you may be worthy to wear a glorious crown of gold? Second, the outside of the church looked completely destroyed, while the inside remained intact, though damaged. A fitting metaphor for the universal Church. To the rest of the world, it looks as if the Church will be completely destroyed. But to those on the inside, we know that, while damaged, it can never be destroyed! Finally, the fire at Notre Dame is a powerful symbol of what is happening to Christianity in Europe, and soon in the United States. The flames of secularism seem intent on destroying it. Will a new generation rise up to save, not their cultural heritage, but their very Faith itself?”


More than buildings


One wonders what Saint Anthony of Padua would have written about the Notre Dame fire. Since it was under construction during his life time, he would have likely seen it had one of his 400 preaching journeys taken him to Paris.

Anthony recognized that the Church was more than buildings. He would have agreed with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which treats the Church as much more than a place of worship. “The Church is the Body of Christ” (Section 805). “In the unity of this Body, there is a diversity of members and functions. All members are linked to one another” (806). The Church is this Body of which Christ is the head: she lives from him, in him, and for him; he lives with her and in her (807). Hence the universal Church is seen to be ‘a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’” (810).


The Good Samaritan


From his knowledge of Scripture and Church teaching, St Anthony recognized the Church as the people of God. Consider his reflection on Jesus’ parable of The Man Beaten By Robbers. The victim was seen, but ignored by both a passing priest and a Levite, but was helped by a good man from Samaria who pitied him. “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (Luke 10:33-35).

Note the progression in this parable, which begins with, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30). He was not forced to go. He went on his own accord. Anthony morally explains the descent. Adam, represented by “a certain man,” “went down from the blessedness of the heavenly Jerusalem to the miseries and weaknesses of this changeful and error-ridden life. By this, he fell among robbers” (Sermons for Sunday and Festivals II, p. 344; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizoni Messaggero Padova).


The Old Law


Man’s choice to leave “the heavenly Jerusalem” brought him into the power of evil and the misery of sin. Satan, like a lion eying a gazelle that strays from the herd, pounced on humanity when we willfully strayed from God’s protective commands.

A priest and Levite offer no help. “The priest and the Levite who pass by are the priesthood and ministry of the Old Law or Testament, which can expose the wounds of the fallen world, but cannot cure them” (Sermons II, p. 344). However, while the Old Law cannot save the wounded victim of sin, Someone can. “The Samaritan (guardian) is the Lord, who for our sakes was made man, undertook the journey of this life, and came to the wounded man… our kinsmen by taking on our suffering, and our neighbors by bestowing his mercy. He bound up his wounds, checking sin by rebuking it. He poured in oil, giving hope to penitents… He poured in wine, inspiring sinners with the fear of punishment… His beast is his own flesh, in which he came to us, on which he placed the wounded man, bearing our sins in his body. He is carried, who believes in the Incarnation and believes that he is saved by the mysteries from the assault of the Enemy” (Sermons II, p. 344-45).

The Samaritan (Jesus) does not cure the wounded sinner unaided, however. He brings him to the inn where the man can recuperate. “The inn is the Church here on earth, where wayfarers and those returning to the eternal homeland are refreshed. He is taken to the inn, laid on the beast, because no one enters the Church unless he is baptized and united with Christ’s Body” (Sermons II, p. 345).


The Two Testaments


Just as the Samaritan went on his way, letting the innkeeper nurse the ill man back to health, so Christ leaves the sinner in care of the Church and its representatives, the clergy in line of the Apostles. “But the Samaritan had not time to stay long on earth; he had to return from whence he had come down. So… he took out two pence, the two Testaments on which the name and image of the eternal King are inscribed, and gave them to the host, the Apostles… so that they might guide the people” (Sermons II, p. 345).

“Neither the priest nor the Levite (the sacrifice and ministry of the Old Law) could give life to, and justify, the human race. Only our mediator and Samaritan Jesus Christ cured the wounded, gave life to the half dead, and laying him upon himself bore him to the inn of the Church, that the promise of eternal life might be given to him who believes in Jesus Christ” (Sermons II, p. 346).

Updated on July 20 2019