“Assuredly, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Paris is, to this day, a majestic and sublime edifice. But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man.”
French writer Victor Hugo wrote those words in his 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), which became The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the English translation of 1833, a motion picture in 1939, and an animated Disney film in 1996.
A 2017 New York Times article by Aurelian Breeden entitled, “In Paris, Worn-Out Notre-Dame Needs a Makeover and Hopes You Can Help,” cited cathedral spokesman André Finot’s description of the renowned church’s disrepair: “Everywhere the stone is eroded, and the more the wind blows, the more all of these little pieces keep falling… It’s spinning out of control everywhere.”
On Monday, April 15, 2019 the televised world watched as the cathedral, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, perhaps the finest example of Gothic architecture in France, spun completely out of control, in a fire apparently sparked by repairs being made in that long-delayed renovation project. The tragic blaze destroyed some two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof, sending its flaming beams crashing into the nave. The church’s famous bell towers were preserved as was the iconic rose window, the structure’s medieval hallmark. The destruction occurred at the beginning of Holy Week, providing sober insights, not only for Catholic Parisians, but also for the global church, particularly in the Christian West where much seems to be spinning out of control. Trauma related to iconic symbols often calls us to larger considerations.
The cathedral itself is an enduring history lesson for the entire church. Construction began in 1163 with the blessing Pope Alexander III, a major player in ever-turbulent medieval Europe. Much of the cathedral’s initial construction was completed by 1260, although work continued well into the 1300s, including addition of the celebrated flying buttresses that support the outside walls. The church’s most famous relic, alleged to be the Crown of Thorns from the crucifixion, was given by King Louis IX in 1231, and rescued from the 2019 fire.
With the Reformation came the notorious “Wars of Religion” between French Catholics and the Calvinist-oriented Huguenots, conflicts that led to the marriage between Protestant Henri of Navarre and the royal princess Marguerite de Valois in Notre Dame, August 18, 1572, an attempt many hoped would restore peace. It didn’t. The Pope refused to recognize the union and Protestant Henri was not allowed even to enter the Cathedral, thus requiring marriage by proxy.
Royal conspiracies resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 23, a Catholic-directed event that led to the death of 10,000 or more Huguenots. Such intrigues continued until 1589 when Henri of Navarre was crowned Henri IV in Notre Dame after converting to Catholicism with the classic line: “Paris is worth a Mass.”
“The terrible destruction … embodies multiple challenges confronting the 21st-century church, particularly in the West.”
The French Revolution of the 1790s produced a populist takeover of the Cathedral that turned it into a Cult of Reason and later the Cult of the Supreme Being, and caused extensive damage to the Cathedral’s facilities, statues and art treasures. Napoleon Bonaparte came to the rescue, restoring the cathedral to Catholics and crowning himself Emperor of the French there in 1804. (Napoleon brought Pope Pius VII to the ceremony but refused to have the Pope bestow the crown on him. A famous painting by the artist David captures the event.)
Victor Hugo’s 19th-century description of the sad state of the building played an important role in securing a massive cathedral renovation, 1844-1864. The church escaped extensive damage during the two World Wars, even with the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 1940s. The 21st century brought even greater crowds of tourists—averaging 30,000 daily, 13 million annually—a precipitous decline of church attendance (only 5 percent of French citizens attend religious services, among the lowest in Europe), and dwindling funds from both the French state (which owns the building) and the Catholic Church.
The terrible destruction at Notre Dame de Paris embodies multiple challenges confronting the 21st-century church, particularly in the West. Here are but a few:
The Church and Society. When Notre Dame Cathedral was constructed almost nine centuries ago, Europe was the Church. To be born into French society was to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, a source of both piety and politics, competing with European nations and monarchs for power and authority. In 2017, a Pew Research study found that 54 percent of the French claimed to be Christian, with 47 percent claiming Catholicism, 2 percent Protestantism, 5 percent Islam and 38 percent religiously non-affiliated. A similar study in 1986 indicated that 82 percent of French citizens claimed Christianity, and 81 percent of that number considered themselves as Catholics.
The Church Endangered and Endangering. The blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, though apparently accidental, comes at a time when vandalism and other criminal incidents against churches have increased in France. February 2019 recorded accounts of some 47 such attacks as reported in The Tablet, a British-based Catholic periodical, a church endangered. That same month, the French Catholic Church announced it would provide an unspecified compensation to victims of sexual abuse from priests, many cases covered up by the church hierarchy. NBC News quoted a French Catholic spokesman who claimed, “The French church is poor, we have to watch every penny,” a church endangering the vulnerable, resisting reparations.
The Church as the living Body of Christ, not a museum. The global outpouring provoked by the cathedral fire profoundly illustrates the power of iconic symbols, in this case religious symbols, in shaping individual and collective identity and spirituality. Amid a burgeoning secularism in France and throughout the West, the quest for transcendence—something beyond ourselves—continues to captivate human beings. Corporations and philanthropists have rushed to provide large sums of money for rebuilding, actions that apparently awakened American donors to fund the reconstruction of three African American churches criminally burned in Louisiana.
As Good Friday moves toward Easter, churches across the world reassert their calling as the Body of the living Christ, not arcane museums—a people of the Resurrection, in urban Paris, rural Louisiana and throughout the whole wide earth.