What Will the Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire Mean for the Catholic Imagination?

Source: Vanity Fair


The cathedral is at once an icon and a sacred place, and thus the response to Monday’s disaster is a crisis of faith and of secularism, writes historian John Cornwell.
By Patrick Zachmann/Magnum.

As the horror-stricken tributes came in overnight, from world leaders and countless people of every faith and none across the globe, the tweets, like so many tides of tears, strived to express what Notre-Dame meant to their writers. The key words, sincere if inadequate, were predictable: she is the “landmark . . . icon . . . heart . . . symbol . . . our destiny . . . our heritage. . . our soul.” President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the cathedral as if it were a living part of the nation: “I am sad to see this part of us burn.”

Angela Merkel’s spokesperson sprung a Latin phrase that saw the cathedral as a ship: “Fluctuat nec mergitur”—“she is tossed by the waves but does not sink.” The saying, apt for the building’s historic vicissitudes, has been Paris’s motto since the 14th century, also when Notre-Dame was finished.

Countless millions of tourists have been awestruck by the elegance of its soaring buttresses, the shadowy mystery of the splendid interior—lit by the glory of its rose windows. For the French, and Parisians in particular, it is a crucial sanctuary of national pride, echoing a host of historic dramas dating back to pre-Christian times. Erected on an island that divides the great banks of the Seine, it was once the site of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Two primitive churches preceded the construction, from 1163, of the cathedral known to us today; it took nearly 200 years to complete. Its 10 great bells have tolled down the centuries in celebration of coronations, royal weddings, papal visits, the ends of two world wars, the beatification of Joan of Arc, the funeral of General de Gaulle. Its walls have reverberated with the sermons of the greatest preachers of every age—down to Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire in the 19th century and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, who in 1937 warned the congregation of a coming dark age.

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Categories: Catholics, Europe, France

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