Tuesday 17 September 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Why Notre-Dame's survival is testament to courage - and the enduring power of faith'

Still standing: The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris following the fire which destroyed part of the building. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Still standing: The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris following the fire which destroyed part of the building. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Patricia Casey

My husband-to-be took a photo of me on a cold November day standing beside one of the gargoyles on the terrace of Notre-Dame.

I looked at it again yesterday and it brought back wonderful memories of romance and optimism. I went inside the edifice on that day in 1983 and for the first time saw men and women queuing to confess in a visible space as they knelt beside their confessor, separated from them only by a grill. I gazed in rapture at the rich colours on the rose window, which thankfully has been spared. We returned to Notre-Dame on our honeymoon in May 1984. We are remembering it now 35 years later, for reasons that are sad but also filled with hope.

How strange that such a monument to religious values and culture should burn on Holy Week, the greatest six days in the Christian calendar. That Notre-Dame is both a religious and cultural icon was clear from the response of the citizens who gathered in numbers to watch, pray, sing, cry, photograph and comment on what was erupting before their very eyes. Eight hundred years of religion, exemplified by the building itself, not least its spire, reaching heavenward, and the crown of thorns that was placed on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion, along with the richly stained rose window, were in danger of being lost forever. But a bronze crucifix, on the altar above the heart-breaking Pieta, threw its reflection onto the grimy water covering the floor below, water from the fireman's hose that had saved this beautiful structure. That image, fusing elements that are ethereal, beautiful, mundane and destructive, is almost too complex to comprehend. The immolation of Notre-Dame did not come to the destructive climax that was feared.

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The cathedral is steeped in secular and religious history. General de Gaulle chose to visit it after the German garrison in Paris surrendered, and he joined in chanting the fourth-century hymn 'Te Deum'. It has sculptures dating back to its beginnings in 1163 and completion in 1345. Victor Hugo celebrated it in literature, most famously in the novel 'Notre Dame de Paris' ('The Hunchback of Notre Dame').

Despite its clear links to both the religious and the secular aspects of France, it is striking that for many the focus of commentary on the fire has been only on tourism and cultural elements while the religious side was ignored. For example BBC One, on its 10pm news on the night of the fire, devoted a considerable time to the event without ever mentioning the words Christian, Catholic, Mass, prayer, sacred or Holy Week. These terms are presumably among the list that "wokeness" has deemed offensive. Architectural historians interviewed by 'Rolling Stone' have recommended the renovation should be modern, and "any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was - a non-secular, white European France - but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making". Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mentioned only the cultural deficit as a result of the blaze while Sophie Gherardi, from the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Religion, on 'Morning Ireland' opined: "I don't think relics have any significance to modern minds."

Modern minds, however, take one back to the French Revolution of 1790 and to the Enlightenment ideas that Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to quash the monarchy and extinguish the despised Catholic Church, replacing it with rationality. This directly involved the sacking of Notre-Dame, the symbol par excellence of Catholicism, by the revolutionary forces.

Public worship was banned and in the process of religious extinction the statues that gilded the façade were torn down, taken to the gallows and "beheaded" just as the king and queen were. Notre-Dame (Our Lady) was renamed 'The Temple to the Goddess of Reason' in which scantily clad dancers performed seductively, before the Goddess, to packed houses. The heads were found behind a wall in a Parisian mansion in 1977.

Despite the bloodiness and cruelty, Notre-Dame survived and, with it, the faith it represented and continues to proclaim. As in the time of the revolution, Catholicism has the distinction of still being despised by some and revered by others. Most of us are in the middle. But recent times have seen an upsurge of violence against Catholic churches in France. This has received little media attention in this country. For instance between February 3 and 11, nine churches suffered severe vandalism ranging from overturned tabernacles to smashed stained-glass windows. Some have been defaced with excrement to which hosts were attached. One church in Yvelines was vandalised three times in a week. The historic Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris was set on fire just after Sunday Mass but thankfully nobody was injured.

It seems Notre-Dame may have been the exception in that vandals were probably not involved. However, the prosecutor has a team of 50 experts working on the investigation to confirm definitively that this is the case.

Notre-Dame is more than a museum. It is a symbol of hope and of resilience. It has inspired courage, exemplified by the saving work of the firemen, but above all it is a testament to the beauty of culture and the enduring power of faith.


Patricia Casey is a consultant psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and professor emeritus of psychiatry, UCD.

Irish Independent

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