Our Lady of Paris, known the world over by its French name, Notre Dame, is undoubtedly one of the most notable man-made landmarks on earth. Catholics know it as one of the great cathedrals of the Church, perhaps the most famous Catholic structure outside of the Vatican. Non-Catholic Americans are more familiar with the building as an architectural wonder or a tourist spot (I’m regretting not visiting it when I was in Paris a couple of summers ago) or a feature of pop culture (think the Hunchback, either the novel or the Disney movie). For millions in France though, it’s so much more. The footage coming out of that country and the statements we read show that millions of French were horrified to see the famed cathedral going up in flames. While thankfully no one was killed in the fire, significant portions of the building were consumed, and there is a profound sense of national mourning for the loss.
After watching Notre Dame burn for hours yesterday, horror turned to at least some relief when it was announced that the fire had been put out and that the building as a whole would remain standing. Although yesterday’s fire was the most significant damage that the cathedral has endured since its construction in medieval times, this is not the first time that the church has narrowly survived destruction. During the French Revolution, angry mobs targeted Notre Dame as a symbol of both the monarchy and its ally, the Catholic Church. These revolutionaries stripped the Cathedral of most of its religious symbolism (most strikingly by decapitating the heads of the 28 statues of the ancient Kings of Judah).
But despite the anti-clericalism, and indeed anti- religiosity, of the Revolution, the cathedral (and the religion it symbolized) were too strong and too ingrained in French culture. Rather than demolishing the cathedral itself (a tactic that the Soviets did in the 20th century and the Chinese Communist Party continues to carry out,, despite the historical record demonstrating that such moves cannot destroy the underlying faith), the Revolution attempted to coopt Notre Dame, and religion, instead. Notre Dame became a “Temple of Reason”, part of the Revolutionary government’s attempt to establish a Cult of Reason, an atheistic religion (which, as the later communist examples demonstrate, is less of an oxymoron than one would think). This new secular religion was centered around worship of the secular principles such as Liberty and Reason, which were physically portrayed actresses in ceremonies that both recalled pagan Roman ceremonies and replaced Mary as the “Lady” of Notre Dame. The Cult of Reason was short-lived (although disillusioned with the Church, most French still preferred Catholicism to its newfangled secular alternative), and Notre Dame was restored as a house of Christian worship.
Notre Dame similarly survived Nazi Germany’s assaults against France. During the final weeks of the Nazi occupation of Paris, it’s rumored that Hitler ordered the head of his troops in the city, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to burn all of the city’s religious and historical monuments to the ground. One version of history says that the general chose to simply ignore the order, while another argues that the Allies were closing in and the Germans simply didn’t have the manpower to carry out the destruction. Either way, Notre Dame remained standing. There was a minor bit of cooptation committed here as well, as a few remaining German troops used Notre Dame as a sniper perch against the Allied army that retook Paris, even attempting to shoot Charles de Gaulle as he triumphantly strolled down the aisle of the church. But Notre Dame survived and became the “backdrop for this moment of national liberation.”
Thus, even though Catholicism in France never fully recovered from the hostility of the Revolution or the general process of secularization that happened in Europe – a recent poll determined that only 23% of French citizens can be classified as “involved” Catholics, and only 5% regularly attend Mass – Notre Dame has endured as a beloved symbol for the French people, religious or secular. This is why France virtually came to a standstill to watch the fate of the cathedral, and why the French elite are already vowing to help rebuild Notre Dame; the Arnault and Pinault familes alone have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards the effort. It was either ironic or fitting that Notre Dame’s tragedy happened during Holy Week, as Catholics around the world mark the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Although the devastation of Notre Dame is being mourned by many French and by Catholics around the world, the importance of the cathedral to the Church and to French history and culture all but guarantee that much like Mary’s son, Notre Dame de Paris, too, will be restored to life.