Marc Dion: The Hand of God

April 22, 2019 9:41:26 AM



I watched Notre Dame de Paris burn from my couch, located in my house, located one block from a 100-year-old Catholic church that is 80 percent empty on Sundays. In the back of the church is a redbrick Catholic school, abandoned for decades.  


And I was baptized in Notre Dame de Lourdes in Fall River, Massachusetts, a huge granite church built with the pennies of $1-a-day French-Canadian cotton mill workers.  


My Notre Dame burned down a few decades ago. It was replaced by a very ugly redbrick church, which merged with another Catholic church two blocks away, and then closed a few years later.  


Although I'm not a very good Catholic, I'm a Catholic. You cannot leave the Catholic Church. If you do, the Church says you haven't, and the more loudly you say you have left, the more it sounds like you know you haven't.  


"An atheist walks into a bar," the joke runs. "How does the bartender know the guy's an atheist?"  


"Because the atheist tells the bartender that he's an atheist. Then, he tells the bartender again. Then, he tells the bartender one more time."  


The wafer of Communion still ghosts on the tongue.  


The Catholic churches of Europe are mostly museums now; packed with doe-eyed Virgin Mother statues, hoarding relics no one venerates and still attended by a few old people. In America, we just tear them down or sell them to some newer faith that will hoist a slab of white wood over the old church door, white wood daubed with a church name in red paint, often containing the words "tabernacle" or "Zion," or maybe both, if the neighborhood is bad enough.  


Our generation of humans believes that poured concrete is architecture, that siding is as good as paint, that gargoyles are, if not vulgar, then at least too expensive to make.  


And so we re-find peasantry, or at least we learn to stop the peasants from any slow, multigenerational, highly ornamented thrust to heaven.  


The Catholic Church turns and turns like a blood-blinded bull tormented by the matador's sword, betrayed, at the last, by everyone from the boy-fondling priests, to the red-cloaked cover-up artists, to the people who have abandoned a faith that followed their ancestors in their weary plod behind the plough, to factory, and death and childbirth.  


The crowds gathered on the sidewalks of Paris, and prayed, and sang the "Ave Maria," and I, a trained newspaper asker of impolite questions, wondered, "How many of those people went to Mass the week before the fire?"  


Impolite indeed, a question for the confessional, and the confessional is out of fashion. We forgive ourselves endlessly, and we piously remind ourselves that "self care isn't selfish," cutting that vapid phrase into our heart until it is as humorously disfigured as a gargoyle.  


Notre Dame de Paris will survive, rebuilt in part by the donations of rich people. Rich people have always thrown a little bit of their money at the feet of a Jesus who took the whip to money-changers. That is one of history's great jokes. 


But the Catholic churches in Europe and America are still mostly empty, the immobile-faced statues wondering where all the young people have gone, a question that sometimes has a terrible answer.  


The Catholic churches are leaving us. God is taking them back one by one. 


Marc Dion, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a reporter and columnist for The Herald News, the daily newspaper of his hometown, Fall River, Massachusetts. For more on Dion, go to go to