When Paris was liberated from German occupation on August 25, 1944, there was no doubt in General Charles de Gaulle’s mind about what he had to do to mark that event in the mind of every French citizen and thereby stamp his authority on the country.
The day after the German garrison in Paris surrendered, de Gaulle, ever the master of the grand historical gesture, visited Notre-Dame Cathedral. He went to hear the Te Deum traditionally sung to celebrate momentous occasions in the nation’s life. As he walked into the cathedral, gunfire broke out inside. It’s never been established whether it came from rogue German snipers seeking vengeance or from communist agitators trying to sow panic. The threat, however, didn’t deter de Gaulle from walking forward to stand bareheaded before the altar and chant the Te deum laudamus (whose words he, as a student of the Jesuits, knew by heart).
De Gaulle’s presence in Notre-Dame mattered because it symbolized the restoration of France’s liberty and honor after four years of occupation and the disgrace of collaboration. What’s more, hundreds of people inside the cathedral and the thousands gathered outside—Catholics, atheists, Socialists, Vichyists, Jews, Resistance fighters—also understood what de Gaulle had done, because they too instinctively recognized Notre-Dame’s importance for France.
The smoking, gutted ruin that is now Notre-Dame has long been France’s parish church. I don’t just mean that it is the cathedral of the French capital. Many Frenchmen and women, including many non-Catholics and non-believers, tacitly regard Notre-Dame as a place in which La France éternelle truly resides.
That’s why someone like Victor Hugo, a Voltairean free thinker for most of his life, didn’t hesitate to locate perhaps his most famous novel in the citadel of the Catholicism which he grew to detest. Likewise Napoleon Bonaparte, despite his notorious contempt for priests and marked preference for the classical world of Greece and Rome, didn’t consider being crowned Emperor of the French anywhere except in Notre-Dame. This decision owed something to his desire to reconcile Catholic France with the legacy of the Revolution which Napoleon had declared to be “over.” But Napoleon also understood that if Paris vaut bien une messe, as Henry IV allegedly said upon converting to Catholicism in 1593, then an Imperial France was worth a Coronation Mass in 1804, and the only place for such a ceremony was Notre-Dame.
Read more at First Things.