The world watched in horror as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame went up in smoke in Paris and my thoughts drifted back to my visit to the City of Lights at age 20. The student tour that I was on visited eight countries in the space of eight weeks, with tiny Liechtenstein possibly making for a ninth. Our time in Paris was brief, and I tried to squeeze in as many sites as possible. Of course, la Cathédrale Notre-Dame was a major draw. A magnificent piece of architecture, worshipping there nevertheless proved somewhat disappointing.
Our visit coincided with a Sunday, and I decided to attend Mass in the 12th-century edifice. I recorded in my journal two things that stood out for me. First, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to understand so much of the liturgy with my high-school French. Vernacular liturgies were only a few years old at the time and still very new for most Catholics, still accustomed to Latin.
A second thing stayed with me longer. While Mass was being celebrated, tourists kept milling about at the edges of the nave, aided and abetted by priests selling souvenirs in kiosks right inside the structure. A reverential attitude seemed rather distant, and I left with the feeling that I had not really worshipped the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ. Rather, my sense was that I had experienced little more than an architectural spectacle whose principal purpose was to entertain tourists.
I would soon come to learn that France had had a history of nearly two centuries of unbelief. Beginning with the Revolution of 1789, the Christian faith went into a steep decline, with the French body politic divided between devout republicans, carrying the revolutionary banner, and dogged traditionalists, seemingly more devoted to monarchy and anti-Semitism than to the gospel. Through five republics, two monarchies, two empires, the Paris Commune (1871) and the collaborationist Vichy regime, Notre-Dame stood testimony to a faith eroded by the forces of secularization.
In 1905, under the pretext of separating church and state, all church property was seized by the government, with the churches permitted to continue worshipping there. This arrangement grew out of a political culture which had never been friendly to religious freedom, even under the Bourbon monarchs. Separating church and state meant protecting the public realm from the influence of traditional religions, which, following the Genevan political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were deemed intrinsically divisive of the body politic. Thus it is hardly surprising that successive French governments have sought to regulate what Christians, Jews, Muslims and others wear in public to testify to their respective faiths.
Thus grieving for Notre-Dame is mixed with sorrowing over France. Once considered the eldest daughter of the church after her conversion under the 6th-century Merovingian ruler Clovis I, France would eventually come to be known as the church’s errant offspring, as the revolutionaries adopted a new faith to replace the old. Indeed Notre-Dame itself was briefly converted into a Temple of Reason in 1793, to celebrate the atheistic Cult of Reason, soon to be replaced by Maximilien Robespierre’s deistic Cult of the Supreme Being.
Notre-Dame will rise again and will once again attract tourists from around the world. But what of France? Secularism, along with the ideologies that grow out of it, does not satisfy the restless heart over the long term. Increasing Muslim immigration is forcing many of the French people to look into their own past for markers of a distinctive French identity. If they see only themselves, their language, their cuisine, their art and their music, they will be coasting on a diminishing store of spiritual capital. If, however, they look more deeply into the faith that once sustained their ancestors, France might once again offer something of inestimable value to the world beyond what brings in the tourists.
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