“Our Cathedral!” The man crying beside me on the banks of the Seine, watching Notre-Dame go up in flames, is Jewish. On this evening of April 15, Jonathan, a thirtysomething computer security specialist, acts as if he had lost a member of his family. “I have never been inside, but whoever is not deeply touched, can he really consider himself French?” he asks. “It is the root and heart of our nation, and of all Europe. Culturally, spiritually, historically.”
Like Jonathan, a large number of French people cried that night. This emotion has been felt well beyond Catholic circles. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the radical left movement France Insoumise and a Freemason, wrote one of the most beautiful reflections on the drama. Mélenchon, a choir boy in his youth, wrote on his blog: “Atheists or believers, Notre-Dame is our common cathedral. The ship, the nave that carries us all on the flow of time. And I think we love it the same way.”
Notre-Dame de Paris occupies a special place in the history of France. But also in the recent past: Notre-Dame welcomed a mourning crowd on November 15, 2015, following the Islamist attack at the Bataclan, which left 90 dead and hundreds wounded. That evening, the bells sounded for the victims of the attacks two days earlier.
But is Notre-Dame only a historical monument? Even if they are flattered by the benevolence of the political establishment with regard to the cathedral, French Catholics note that the secular media struggle to admit that it is first of all a place of worship. They do not want to see Notre-Dame reduced only to her stones.
The popular emotion released by the fire of Notre-Dame cuts through the interminable debates about the Christian roots of France. The media elite deny these roots in the name of a secularism that has become a kind of state atheism. That is why French Catholics are obliged to remind their fellow countrymen that it is the faith that built Notre-Dame. Only the celebration of the sacraments will enable her to be faithful to her vocation.
This is what the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, observed on April 16, when he appeared on Jean-Jacques Bourdin’s popular radio show. Notre-Dame, he said, was built for one purpose: to house a piece of bread. “How can we build such a work of art for a piece of bread?” he asked. “Because we believe this piece of bread is the body of Christ.”
A former doctor who was ordained aged 44, Aupetit knows how to communicate with the public with simple and clear words.
Faced with this tragedy, French Catholics felt a great spiritual intensity throughout Holy Week. On the night of the fire, hundreds of young Catholics spontaneously prayed and watched in the streets of Paris, without any clerical mandate. The Chrism Mass, transferred from Notre-Dame to Saint-Sulpice, attracted a considerable crowd.
Despite the apocalyptic interpretations that have spread on the internet, especially among some Pentecostals, the Catholics of France have been edified by the two visible miracles of this fire: the fact that the glorious cross of the high altar remained intact, and the daring rescue of the Crown of Thorns by Paris fire brigade chaplain Fr Jean-Marc Fournier. The priest entered the burning cathedral to recover this relic, and the Blessed Sacrament. “I walked in to bring back Jesus,” he told the media.
This heroic gesture already marks the beginning of the spiritual reconstruction of an entire nation.
Jean Fournier is a French journalist based in Paris