Family friends in Paris live in an apartment just short of the corner where the Boulevard St Germain reaches the Seine. It is on the edge of the old Latin Quarter and you can practically touch the flank of Notre Dame across the river.
For them, it is more like a parish church than an historic national monument. From home it is a short walk to Mass. Their daughter Blanche throughout her schooling sang in the cathedral choir, the famous Maîtrise de Notre Dame.
Not just a church but a home
In Holy Week, following the terrible fire, the choristers in an article published by Franceinfo, spoke of the loss of their home. That was no affectation. Certainly our friend Blanche, on the eve of her last performance with the Maîtrise, said goodbye to this shrine to Our Lady with memories of the domestic, the familiar and the familial.
With a friend and fellow chorister, and after the night-time practice, they melted into the shadows, found a little retreat and, waiting for the last of the security guards to wander out, heard the doors shut and settled in for a good night’s sleep.
That of course was not the Notre Dame we heard of from the commentators through the evening and night when the cathedral was so nearly lost. For two or three hours the BBC and others invoked the iconic, the historical, the cultural and the architectural. In all the official expressions of regret, the only one to say the word ‘Catholic’ was the President Mr Macron. Otherwise it was a religion-free zone.
A Cathedral at the centre of French life
Of course the great national and cultural significance of Notre Dame, at least in public discourse, often seems to overwhelm its very raison d’être – as a place of worship. Sometimes however the two come together, as they did 75 years ago.
On a brilliant August day, an enormous crowd, said by the historian Julian Jackson to be perhaps the largest ever to have gathered in France’s long history, overflowed the Champs-Élysées.
Through the crush and leading a slow deliberate procession down the avenue was an immensely tall and commanding figure. Backed by the Allies, he had liberated Paris from German occupation. Now he was headed across the River Seine to Notre Dame Cathedral.
Greeted by the Archbishop of Paris, Charles de Gaulle went in and was joined by a multitude singing the great Te Deum and celebrating Mass. High up in the roof gunshots rang out. He remained “upright and impassive“, impervious to danger. Others did not. The ceremony was cut short. He told his wife later that there had been a bit of “showing off … It will not last.” Nor did it.
The Notre Dame Cathedral of 1944 was one of its many faces recalled and regretted by commentators genuinely appalled at the spectacle of the church in flames. It was the Notre Dame of crownings and burials, of the rise and fall of national leaders, both revolutionary and legitimate, of the comings and goings of regimes.
A house of worship in an age of unbelief
But there are other commentators, usually religious, often Catholic, who speak almost with despair about what has happened, and all that was said and done, during that terrible Holy Week. One among them, the editor-at-large, wrote a week ago in The Wall Street Journal:
“The spectacle of the second most famous church in Christendom consumed by fire in this, the holiest of weeks for Christians, was for many as good a symbol of the collapse of a historic culture before the advancing flames of atheistic, multicultural relativism as any terrorist attack or act of malicious desecration.”
So the pledges of money to rebuild prompted him to ask: “What exactly are they going to rebuild?”
He answered, “… it is not a church that these leaders want to build but a museum. How fitting. For the political and cultural establishment, that is where religion, the faith that built this great cathedral, belongs…”
The bitterness is perhaps not surprising given all those hours of coverage in the media which ignore, or perhaps more accurately are ignorant of, Notre Dame’s “original, sacred intent”. There, as here, the numbers who go to church are dwindling. The decline seems unstoppable.
Is there a future for the faith in France?
For many Christians, the fire at Notre Dame seems to be the end point in a process where gradually, remorselessly, the churches of France, indeed all across Europe and the lands far beyond, are denied their spiritual significance and like museums enter into the realms of memory.
But I doubt that our friend Blanche would agree. Is it really faithless France? Or is that simply our own pride blinding us to reality here at home?
Take two examples. One derives from the Taizé ecumenical community founded just as France fell to the German invasion in 1940.
On Holy Thursday at the end of Mass at Newman College Chapel, the congregation accompanies the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose. The choir sings a Taizé hymn “Watch and Pray”. It is utterly simple with deep roots in the Gospel and the musical tradition which bring it to life. No one there is unmoved by it. Along with the Gelineau psalms it is a sublime gift of that French religious culture which is not lost in the flames of relativism.
The French have big hearts
The other example is from Aid to the Church in Need founded to aid German refugees fleeing west when their country collapsed in defeat 5 years later. The French were great donors in bringing food and the sacraments to their former enemies. They still are great donors to ACN. Of the more than 20 national bodies which make up that remarkable pastoral charity, Australia among them, the French are the most generous contributors towards the hundred million dollars distributed annually to sustain priests and religious, the churches and seminaries, the clinics and schools which foster and hand on the Catholic faith to the poor and persecuted around the world.
In turn, that generosity is prompted by the new religious movements which are a feature of French Catholicism.
Perhaps we simply fail to see the shoots of new life. As the great Australian poet James McAuley wrote:
It is not said we shall succeed
Save as His Cross prevails:
The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if He wills it to
And if not, then it fails.
But the enduring power of the faith in France is perhaps best captured by a third example, the image of three Parisian firemen, the Pompiers, gazing through the open doors of Notre Dame at a scene of destruction.
Their helmets, like Roman centurions’, are burnished red in the glow of embers. In the distance behind the now destroyed altar, is a gold cross still intact. In that picture is the pain of Calvary and the promise of Easter.
What is it that the firemen can see if not Notre Dame’s original, sacred intent?
Terry Tobin QC is a former Chancellor of Notre Dame University in Australia and is Chair of Aid to the Church in Need Australia.