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Burning issues

In the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, France’s Christian past collides with its turbulent secular present

Burning issues

Flames and smoke billow from the roof at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15. (Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images)

The pundits billed the televised speech French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to give at 8 p.m. on April 15 as the most important of his political career. After months of civil unrest and record protests, Macron had called for a “great national debate,” and in the Monday night address voters expected him to announce the way forward, and in so doing either unite or further divide a fractured country.

Instead Macron watched helplessly with the rest of the world as fire engulfed a symbol of France, the 800-year-old Cathedral of Notre Dame. Canceling the speech, the president arrived at the church while hundreds of firefighters continued to battle the blaze, only to find himself engulfed not in his country’s future but its past. “It is our common history, and it is burning,” a pale and visibly shaken Macron told the cameras.

Philippe Wojazer/Pool via AP

Macron answers reporters after watching the fire. (Philippe Wojazer/Pool via AP)

The next day, with the fallen embers of the 12th-century cathedral still cooling in the nave, Macron gave a different speech, asking the French to unite around their heritage rather than new tax and social spending policies. “It is up to us now to rediscover the thread of our national project—what made us, what unites us,” Macron said. 

The nine-hour blaze—which destroyed the main roof, including its iconic spire, and left troubling “holes” in its massive vaulted limestone ceiling—could cost an estimated $8 billion to repair. 

The destruction brought renewed attention to the medieval edifices of Christianity in Europe. Residents and tourists alike paused beneath more than a hundred Gothic cathedrals across France as the bells tolled at 6:50 p.m.—the time the fire began—in a moment of ecclesiastical solidarity arranged by the French Bishops Conference. Some took photos, while others quietly wiped away tears.

The 12th-century church had been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, with an estimated 35,000 visitors every day. via AP

Aerial view of the damage ( via AP)

Authorities said the fire was likely caused by renovation work in the attics where its massive oak structure—called “the forest”—has been drying for 800 years. According to the cathedral’s rector, fire monitors check the wooden superstructure three times a day, and a firefighter is always on-site. Remarkably, the first fire alarm sounded just as the church closed for the day, in the week before Easter when crowds are high, and no one was killed. Also, its two main towers and famed rose windows of stained glass, along with vast amounts of treasured artwork, were saved.

A massive rebuilding effort seemed to galvanize France’s elite, with wealthy magnates pledging within 48 hours after the blaze nearly $1 billion to repair Notre Dame. For decades fundraising efforts to renovate the structure have sputtered, but in coming months a frenzied international effort to restore it—which Macron says must be completed before the Paris Olympics in 2024—will get underway. Named to head that effort is Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, 70, a decorated former chief of defense staff who is also a practicing Catholic.

French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte spoke for many Parisians: “It’s a cathedral that I pass several times a day. You could almost forget it was there. And in a flash it is revealed again. This little spark, this fire, has put it back at the center of the world.” 

Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals sprang forth from a fractious and warring Europe uniting under the banner of Christianity. When Ulfilas, the “apostle to the Goths,” translated the Bible into their language, he left out the books of Kings, he said, because the “Gothic people are lovers of war.” Clovis, the Frankish king, became a Christian but said those under his command would never forsake their pagan gods.

He was wrong. His conversion ushered in a new epoch of Christianity in the West, writes historian Robert Louis Wilken, as 3,000 men in his army were baptized. As new beliefs took hold, they changed customs and laws, while Christian worship brought Latin and literacy, altered the calendar, and reconfigured public spaces.  

Perhaps no more than 10-25 percent of males were literate when Notre Dame was built. Yet its craftsmen deployed what researchers today call “divine dimensions”—formulas and proportions derived from Solomon’s Temple and the celestial city in the book of Revelation—to construct a worship experience of soaring spaces and penetrating light, drawing the worshipper’s gaze to heaven. To do that, they invented the pointed and ribbed vault of intersecting stones, lightened so that height could be achieved without mass, while the walls—supported by exterior braces, or flying buttresses—could be made of glass rather than solid stone. 

Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via AP

Interior damage (Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via AP)

“Notre Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages,” wrote British historian Tom Holland after the fire. “Notre Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past.”

Like Clovis, France’s youngest president desperately wants to unify his increasingly secular country. The enthusiasm that swept Macron into office in 2017 eroded over 2018 to an approval rating of 23 percent by the start of 2019. Last year’s proposed gas tax hike was the final straw for many, who hit the streets in yellow safety vests to protest Macron policies. 

After blockading traffic circles in rural France, the Yellow Vests turned to Paris and other cities. As more protesters turned out in solidarity, the movement turned violent. Months of weekend demonstrations left popular shopping areas and streets in shambles, the worst civil unrest since 1968. Macron dropped the gas tax late last year, but the Yellow Vests showed no sign of stopping: They simply want Macron to leave office. 

Most French aren’t protesting, but the Yellow Vests underscore the frustrations of France’s middle class who want to reinvigorate businesses and combat 10 percent unemployment. Macron’s efforts have left many frustrated and disillusioned. 

Another social divide drawing attention in the wake of Notre Dame’s fire is attacks on churches, both evangelical and Catholic. More than 65 acts of vandalism against churches occurred in the first two months of 2019, according to the National Council of Evangelicals of France (CNEF).

In early March vandals broke into Hope and Life Evangelical Church near Bordeaux, stealing $12,000 worth of sound equipment. But theft wasn’t their only goal: They poured paint onto walls and chairs and into electronic equipment. “There was a will to defile and destroy, and to keep us from continuing our worship services,” said Pastor Joseph Miall. 

In mid-March arsonists set fire to the entrance of Saint-Sulpice, a 17th-century Catholic church in Paris. Parishioners heard the flames and raised the alarm. No one was injured, but the fire destroyed the church’s historic doors.  

Notre Dame also has been targeted. In 2016 three Muslim women attempted to blow up a car filled with gas canisters in the street next to Notre Dame. On April 12, three days before the fire, one of the women, 22-year-old Ines Madani, was sentenced to eight years in prison on other terror-related charges. The trial for the 2016 incident is scheduled to begin in September.

Before the Notre Dame fire, such attacks received little media coverage outside religious press. CNEF called for more government action, asking in a statement after the attack on the Hope and Life Church, “In the future will it be possible to worship God and to profess faith publicly in freedom and security in France?”

Sixty percent of French say they are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center, but only about 10 percent are practicing, and the French customarily don’t embrace public displays of religion. Recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have further eroded confidence and faith. The flames and smoke of Notre Dame, said Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, evoked feelings of grief and loss, “especially for Catholics, who saw in the destruction a metaphor for—or judgment of—the state of their church.”  

In France, Christian Delphine Brabant said simply, “My country needs a revival.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.

Mindy Belz

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is a correspondent for WORLD Radio and WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family. Follow her on Twitter @jlindschmitt.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sun, 04/21/2019 05:58 am

    Interesting that in news releases they were unable to get investigating teams into many parts of the sturcture and they could not point to a cause but they could rule out arson and terrorism.  One would hope that was true.  

  • Rick
    Posted: Fri, 04/26/2019 12:16 pm

    Thanks for a great article. I didn't realize the extent of the attacks that, as you point out, don't make the news. The burning and crumbing of Notre Dame seems a sad metaphor for the Church in Europe and the west in general. As the mainline Churches decline in the west, their old hstoric buildings decay or are repurposed for secualar use. I will be suprised if secular France actually puts up 8 billion to the restore the building to its former glory.

  • charles jandecka
    Posted: Fri, 04/26/2019 05:36 pm

    "Christian past?" The Trinity forms a patriarchal system, with no room for imagined ladies. Aside from that, the monstrous structure, notre dame, was full of idols and gargolyes. There is more, for those who want to reseach activities indulged within its dark recesses.