Notre-Dame weeps


The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burned last night, as much of it was devastated by an aggressive fire tearing through its heart. Grant Tungay SJ, studies theology in Paris and frequently worshipped at the Paris cathedral. He shares the moment he learned of the fire and the history of this most sacred place in the Catholic world.

While at dinner in my Jesuit community last night, 15 April 2019, a brother Jesuit showed me images of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris in flames. Shock filled the air in our dining room.

This is Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral that is the pride of the Catholic community and indeed of France. This is Notre-Dame de Paris. The famous cathedral in Victor Hugo’s book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the site where Napoleon was crowned emperor. But for me, this is my cathedral. The place where I go to confession and where I pray on a regular basis. I realised yesterday that, over the past three years that I have lived in Paris, it has become central to my Catholic life here. The fire that ravaged the roof of this great church last night, ravaged a bit of me too. 

We do not yet know how the fire started. Seemingly, the fire resulted from the extensive restoration project underway, which started a few months ago, following an urgent appeal for its upkeep. 

Notre-Dame has in fact had many ‘reconstructions’ over the years. Construction began in 1163 and it took almost 200 years to complete. 

It is built on a small island called the Île de la Cité, one of the oldest parts of Paris. In the crypt of the cathedral, you can see the remains of Roman ruins underneath the building and the story of how the great building was constructed. The story shows how it took shape as the lives of Parisians evolved and developed around it. 

The building is one of the first of its kind to use flying buttresses to support the weight of the walls. These are the arched pillars of stone that, like great concrete fingers, extend from the top of its walls reaching into the ground. This allowed for great sections of the wall to be cut out and for large stained glass panels to be installed into the frame. The final section completed was its two towers, housing the famous bells of Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame also sustained serious damage during the French Revolution. And tragically, maintenance over the years has not always been what it should.  Major reconstruction work was undertaken in the mid-1800s, owed largely to the fame that Hugo’s novel brought to the historic building. 

The spire in the middle of the building was originally built in the 13thcentury but had to be reconstructed using oak and about 750 tons of lead. Until yesterday, this feat of construction dominated the Paris skyline. Moments before 8pm last night, the spire that had once contributed to the romantic city’s skyline collapsed dramatically, falling into its nave. 

The city cathedral welcomes some 13 million visitors each year. While many of these are tourists, that are there to marvel at its art and architecture, we must not forget that, primarily, it is a church, a place of and for Christian worship. The site is precious  and of inestimable value to Paris’ Catholic faithful —indeed the world’s faithful. Catholics have worshipped there for centuries, transported by its beauty.

Last night’s fire threatened to destroy, in a day, a place that had taken almost 850 years to build. 

Firefighters spent much of the night trying to save the two towers and the major structure of the cathedral. And, fortunately, their tireless hours of work have proved successful. Still, untold damage has been done. 

About two-thirds of the roof has been destroyed and the vast artistic heritage housed in the cathedral is, now, lost. 

For instance, there was the crown of thorns, purported to be the crown worn by Jesus during his crucifixion; the tunic of St Louis IX, who brought the thorns to Paris; the great organ of Notre-Dame, one of the largest and most famous organs in the world; and the bells situated in the towers of the cathedral, used to signal historic events like the end of World War II. Thankfully, it appears that the crown of thorns, the tunic, the bells and the organ are saved. But, certainly much of its historic patrimony is now cinders. 

This is the true cost of the fire last night. We can rebuild the structure and replace the roof, but some of the items inside the cathedral are priceless and irreplaceable. 

As we try to take in what happened last night and the damage that has been done, France promises that it will do what it can to rebuild and restore what has been lost. But for me, its impact on Catholic life in France is a devastating tragedy. 

This is Holy Week, the most sacred time of the Catholic calendar. At the end of this week, the  Catholic faithful of Paris, and far beyond, would have expected to celebrate the great Christian feast of Easter at Notre-Dame. But, the most sacred space of the Archdiocese of Paris, Notre-Dame has been consumed by fire. And, its faithful will be left to celebrate Easter without the familiar resounding ringing of its bells as alleluia’s pierce through its Gothic walls responding to the soul-stirring chant of its magnificent grand organ. Notre-Dame weeps.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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