Notre Dame: The French Rally Together Around Their Wounded Catholic Cathedral

The dreadful fire that devastated large parts of the 850-year-old cathedral Monday evening in Paris also has triggered a wave of solidarity and an unusual consensus among a divided French people.

The steeple and spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame collapses, as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15.
The steeple and spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame collapses, as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15. (photo: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — Emotion is still at its peak in the capital of France, in the wake of the massive blaze that burned an important part of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on April 15. 

The sight of the beloved cathedral ravaged by flames at the start of Holy Week has been heartbreaking to the entire French nation. Yet the timing of the catastrophe, which broke out mere hours before French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to deliver a televised address articulating his response to the nationwide “Yellow Vest” protests against his government’s policies, has also served as a rallying point for a deeply divided contemporary France. 

After the Paris Fire Department deployed 400 firefighters in response to the blaze, the fire was finally contained far into the night and completely extinguished the following morning. At the height of the blaze, as the survival of the towers of Notre Dame remained highly uncertain, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris called on Twitter for the ringing of the city’s church bells to invite prayer. Near the cathedral, onlookers knelt in prayer, rosaries in hand, singing hymns. 

The potential collapse of the whole structure hung in the balance at the height of the inferno, but afterward the cathedral remained standing, although grievously damaged. 

The cathedral’s spire and its 13th-century wooden framework, crafted meticulously over decades by medieval craftsmen, were destroyed. The latter, which was known as “the forest of Notre Dame,” was constructed from 1,300 oak trees — equal to 52 acres of forest. The spire, meanwhile, was built according to architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s specifications in the 19th century. 

But the famous 13th-century stained-glass rose windows miraculously survived the fire, as well as most of the artworks and relics held in the building, most notably the Crown of Thorns and a tunic worn by St. Louis. The Blessed Sacrament was also safely removed. 

These heirlooms of Catholic heritage were rescued thanks to Father Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris fire service, who entered the cathedral with firefighters and supervised the movement of the  irreplaceable artifacts to a safe place away from the flames. They are now held in the Louvre. 

Statues representing the Twelve Apostles and Four Evangelists were moved beforehand for restoration and escaped the blaze. 

A preliminary investigation was launched by Paris’ public prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, involving 50 people interviewing the workers who were present on the site April 15. 

During a press briefing, Heitz said they were favoring the thesis of an accident likely resulting from the major renovations that were underway at the cathedral. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the catastrophic blaze are raising many questions, especially considering the various safety precautions taken toward the monument and its continuous monitoring. 

“We will rebuild this cathedral,” Macron vowed in front of the still-burning monument in the evening of April 15, after canceling his scheduled speech because of the unfolding disaster.

Macron declared that France would appeal to the greatest available talents to make that happen. And the next morning, a national fundraising campaign was launched, with funds rapidly flooding in from France and all over the world. By the next day, the pledges had already reached 900 million euros ($1 billion). France’s greatest family fortunes and major companies made important financial commitments: The Pinault family, which owns the auction house Christie’s, promised 100 million euros; the Arnault family’s luxury goods conglomerate LVMH announced a 200-million-euro donation; the Bettencourt-Meyers family (and its foundation), which controls the beauty product group L’Oréal, will donate 200 million euros; and energy corporation Total promised to deliver 100 million euros. 

Like every other French cathedral built before France’s 1905 law of separation between the Church and the state, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is owned by the state. So if private individuals and companies don’t step forward, all the rebuilding costs will be borne by the French government; hence the importance of private donations to help fund it. 

The event also aroused sympathetic reactions across the political spectrum. Most political leaders suspended their campaigns for next month’s European Parliament elections for 24 hours the day following the blaze as a sign of national mourning. 


‘The Soul of France’

During the night of April 15 and into the early hours of the next day, the whole world watched in horror the images of the burning cathedral. If Christians, especially Catholics, are the most affected by such a tragedy, the vast majority of French people are jointly mourning the loss of a high symbol of their culture. Indeed, the story of Notre Dame Cathedral, the most emblematic monument of France, is rooted in their collective consciousness. 

Built at the heyday of Christianity in the Middle Age, this Gothic masterpiece has been visited by the greatest kings and statesmen in the history of France, from King Louis IX (the future St. Louis) to Charles de Gaulle. 

It even became a symbolic assembly hall for the French Revolution, when it was temporarily transformed into an atheistic “Temple of Reason,” before Napoleon Bonaparte restored its status as a place of worship in 1801. Bonaparte was himself crowned emperor in the cathedral three years later. And, more than a century later, Gen. de Gaulle had a Te Deum celebrated there on Aug. 26, 1944, in the aftermath of the Liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation.

Today, at a time when secularism has become an inviolable norm in the French nation, the general outpouring of emotion aroused by the sight of the cathedral — which embodies the eternal testimony of the Christian faith, a faith that is integral to the history of France — engulfed in flames seemed to spark more than a mere concern for historic architecture. 

“What is nourishing emotion is not the simple fact that some stones are burning — it is the very fact that this cathedral is part of our common history; it is the soul of France,” Father Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, a priest of the Diocese of Versailles and the co-founder of influential blog “Padreblog,” told the Register. “Everyone is sensing the significance of this place of prayer, which gives an extra measure of harmony to the city and the whole country. It has always been a landmark in our history: In the darkest hours as well as in the most joyful ones, we gathered in Notre Dame.” For this reason, despite France’s secularism, not just Catholics but the entire nation hopes to see the cathedral survive and be entirely rebuilt, according to Father Grosjean.

That sentiment is shared by writer and journalist Jean Sévilla, a specialist in the Catholic history of France

“It was very striking to see, through social media notably, that this event has mobilized the whole French society, beyond the usual political and ideological splits,” he told the Register. 

In his opinion, it is fresh evidence that it is impossible to separate Christianity from the history of France. 

“The unanimity in the emotion reveals something of this secret bond, which is a taboo in our secularized country. An element of the national memory is fundamentally involved,” added Sévilla, highlighting the fact that even nonreligious people accepted the idea of a national mourning for the damage the cathedral has suffered. 

“This clearly shows Christianity is at the heart of our history and culture, whether we like it or not,” he said. “Everyone in the country will give money to the national fundraising. Such mobilization, accompanied by many prayer gatherings for the cathedral, reveals a massive awakening of people, and we can just hope it will be sustained.” 


Symbols of Unity

In today’s increasingly secular France, where the Catholic Church is subject to widespread contempt from the media as well as a growing part of the elite and of the general population, the tragedy of Notre Dame has sounded a clarion call to many, ringing forth a testimony to the continuing importance of faith. 

The image of a bright cross alongside a statue of the Virgin Mary (Nicolas Coustou’s 1723 sculpture Descent From the Cross), both standing amid the wreckage the morning following the blaze, will remain etched in everyone’s mind. Various priests saw in it an allegory of the deep crisis that is affecting the Church of France, hoping such catharsis will purify it and become a seed for spiritual growth in the country. 

“I find this image deeply moving because it summarizes our current state of mind: There is a kind of distress in front of the wounded cathedral, and at the same time a hope of a rebuilding with a renewed fervor,” Father Grosjean said. “We are struggling to find the common good, for something that can unify the French, and, mysteriously, Our Lady made that happen.”

This spiritual sign of unity seemed all the more striking in the context of the ongoing Yellow Vests movement, which since November 2018 has drawn thousands of people into the streets every Saturday in protest against the government’s fiscal and economic policy. 

The very evening of the fire President Macron was scheduled to address the nation in an official response to the protesters’ complaints. His unifying gesture was unexpectedly and surprisingly replaced by a compelling image of the Virgin Mary offering to unite this highly secularized country in a way no political message would have done. 

In this transpiration, Father Guillaume de Menthière, who preached the 2019 Lent Conferences in Notre Dame, saw a kind of “miracle springing from a dreadful event.”

“What beautiful words I heard from tourists, idle onlookers, journalists, political leaders, clergymen, aesthetes, firefighters …,” Father de Menthière wrote in a noteworthy reflection on the blaze. 

"A mysterious communion seems to finally reign over the people of France, of whom the past few months had so sadly exposed the divisions and social dislocations to the world.” 

Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.