17 April 2019, The Tablet

A living symbol of French Catholicism


To say the French love the church would be a historical misrepresentation, unless what is meant is the one built 850 years ago on the Île de la Cité called Notre Dame de Paris. The deep heartache the French suffered when they saw the roof of their beloved cathedral ablaze on Monday evening was remarkably moving. It seemed like the death of a very old and dear friend, who had seen everything, heard everything, felt everything, forgiven everything. Notre Dame is not only one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, but a symbol of national identity that has few equivalents elsewhere. It functioned as a beacon: Parisians do not have to be inside it to look to it for guidance. It reminds them what France is, and who they are.

And that means Catholic – in some sense. Anti-clericalism is still a live tradition on the left in France, which tends to see Catholicism as the traditional ally of reactionary social forces which have never quite come to terms with 1789. That was never more than half true, and the place of Notre Dame in French affections tells another story.

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