Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as place of worship
A regular Mass was in progress at the cathedral when the fire broke out.
While Notre Dame’s imposing Gothic architecture has become a tourist mecca, the cathedral remains at heart a place of worship, a powerful expression of religious reverence crafted from stone.
A regular evening Mass was in progress when a fire broke out near the top of the landmark church on Monday, and worshippers were evacuated quickly.
The global reaction to images of flames chewing through the roof, collapsing the spire and threatening the entire cathedral made it clear that Notre Dame was bigger than any one faith, and touched the faithless.
Pope Francis and other religious leaders commented on this transcendent quality while offering prayers and technical expertise to help with rebuilding.
That a cathedral Francis called the “artistic and spiritual patrimony of humanity” went up in flames during Holy Week, the solemn days before Easter when Christians commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, intensified the sense of loss and devastation.
In a condolence note to Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, Francis called the church the “architectural gem of a collective memory”. He said he prayed it would retake its place as an emblem of the French nation and its diversity.
The soaring beauty of Notre Dame as it echoed with Gregorian chants so moved the French poet Paul Claudel on Christmas Day 1886 that the avowed atheist converted to Catholicism on the spot.
Claudel’s religious transformation is commemorated with a plaque on the floor. He remained a committed Catholic until his death nearly seven decades later.
He wrote: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed.”
Some commentators, particularly figures from the religious right, saw the fire-ravaged structure that represented the height of French Catholicism as a metaphor for the demise of the Catholic Church in Europe, where secular trends long ago emptied pews and drained the priesthood of fresh vocations.
But the outpouring of grief and determined vows to bring Notre Dame back to life seemed to signal that, for all the talk of a Catholic crisis in Europe, the French, at least, still see the essence of themselves in Notre Dame.
Notre Dame draws 13 million people across its portals each year, a significant share of them tourists coming to admire the building’s vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses and stained-glass windows. Many visitors also come to worship.
There are four Masses every day except Sunday, when there are five. The Sunday evening service is usually celebrated by the Paris archbishop and broadcast on Catholic television and Radio Notre Dame, reaching the faithful beyond the stone walls.
The Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, said: “Even though it belongs to the French state, it remains a living creature where they celebrate the liturgy, where they have meetings of faith and where even non-believers enter to have an experience of beauty.”
However, Cardinal Ravasi also stressed that many of Christianity’s holiest sites are in constant evolution. While Notre Dame “has a secret spiritual dimension” that makes it a place “where even a non-believer senses the transcendent”, the spire that collapsed during the fire only dated from the 1800s, he said.
Representatives of religions outside Catholicism made clear the cathedral burning in the centre of Paris carried significance for them, too.
An official of the Russian Orthodox Church quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti called the blaze “a tragedy for the entire Christian world, and for all who appreciate the cultural significance of this temple”.
The church’s secretary for inter-Christian relations, Hieromonk Stefan, also had concern for the safety of Notre Dame’s most precious relic, venerated as the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus Christ.
He called it “a sacred object for all Christians”.
The Church of England’s director of cathedrals and church buildings, Becky Clark, stressed that “no matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such catastrophes”.
She cited historic precedence in England: The spire of Lincoln Cathedral collapsing in the 1500s, St Paul’s Cathedral being destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and Coventry Cathedral being levelled by German bombs in 1940.
“All have been rebuilt, sometimes taking on new forms, to stand as reminders of eternity and resurrection which are the foundation of the Christian faith,” she said.