As the May edition of the Oratory Parish Magazine is about to go to press, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris continues to smoulder after a devastating fire which destroyed most of its roof yesterday evening and into the night. The most dreadful moment to watch was the collapse of the spire, part of which plummeted through the vault and into the crossing and north transept. As orange flames spread in all directions, it seemed unlikely that anything except the towers and entrance facade at the west end, at most, could possibly survive.
This morning the flames and black smoke have subsided to reveal a dramatically impoverished skyline over central Paris. The distinctive high pitched roof and soaring spire which helped to make Notre Dame one of the most iconic and best loved monuments to the Christian faith in the whole world have gone completely. All that can now be seen above the walls of the nave and transepts are a few charred stumps of burnt roof beams, some of which were carved from oaks that would have been alive when Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor.
Thanks be to God, though, the damage does not seem to be as extensive as many feared. The rose window in the south transept, a gift of Saint Louis of France (King Louis IX) in 1260, and one of the greatest treasures of medieval art in existence, is apparently intact, as are the other rose windows in the cathedral. Thanks to the strength of the magnificent medieval vaulting, and to the extraordinary skill and judiciousness of the firemen, the walls of the cathedral are still standing and much of the interior has been saved. Had the vaults collapsed under the weight of too much water, it is likely that the famous flying buttresses would have pushed the walls inwards, reducing the whole building to rubble. Instead, a photograph taken inside the nave this morning shows the massive gilded cross at the High Altar gleaming defiantly in a ray of light. The Blessed Sacrament and Notre Dame’s most precious relic, the Crown of Thorns, were rescued by the Abbé Fournier, chaplain to the Paris fire brigade. Prayers are still needed, however, because what remains standing is in a fragile state. It is to be hoped that by the time this letter rolls off the press the structure will have been secured and somehow stabilised.
As Parisians watched the progress of the fire with horror, there were some impressive scenes of great faith, hope and devotion. One of the most touching was of large numbers of young Catholics gathering in the streets to pray. Outside the church of Saint Julien le Pauvre on the Left Bank, one group knelt on the pavement in full view of the collapsing roof of Notre Dame, calmly praying the Holy Rosary and interspersing the decades with verses from a beautiful French hymn to the Blessed Virgin.
Notre Dame is no stranger to adversity. In 1548 the cathedral was badly damaged by rioting Huguenots. Two centuries later the diabolical destructiveness of the French Revolution left its scars in the form of beheaded statues of saints which can still be seen around the entrance portals at the west end. In 1793 the revolutionaries ‘rededicated’ Notre Dame to the absurdly named Cult of Reason and many treasures were lost to posterity in the frenzy of distinctly unreasonable vandalism that ensued. By the early 19th century, the building was in a state of severe dilapidation, and was only restored after Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame awakened a new fascination for its gothic mystique. Much of what has been lost in the fire was the fruit of Viollet-le-Duc’s embellishments.
The burning of Notre Dame has provided a poignant start to Holy Week. Many on social media seem to be interpreting the fire as a symbol for the plight of the Catholic religion itself in our own age, with the credibility of the Church collapsing in flames thanks to much publicised abuses of authority and betrayals of trust and a political culture of spin and prevarication which only fans the flames. The difference is that the builders of Notre Dame were never given a divine guarantee that the work of their hands would endure until the end of time. The Church, meanwhile, has Christ’s promise that, whatever calamities may befall Her, She will continue on earth until Our Lord’s Second Coming when She will be here to greet Her Bridegroom before being subsumed, perfected and glorified in Heaven.
During this month of May, we should ask Our Lady to intercede for the work on the restoration of Her cathedral in Paris. The French President has publicly identified himself with the ancient Roman king of the Gods, Jupiter. Predictably he lost no time in promising that Notre Dame will be rebuilt “in a manner that is consistent with the modern and diverse nation that France is today.” Let us pray that this glorious cathedral does not fall victim to the virtue-signalling of the politically correct. Of course, Notre Dame may be admired and loved by adherents of all religions and none. But she is above all a glorious and majestic statement of the Catholic Faith, and of the universal queenship of the Mother of God. As she rises once again to her full height over the streets of Paris, may the holy Catholic Faith grow with Her, under the patronage of Our Lady, until our Faith is again taught and fanned to a golden blaze, as it was in the days when Notre Dame was being built.
Father Julian Large