The Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, is renowned for his calm demeanor and easy-going manner. That made it all the more significant when, during a recent radio interview following President Emmanuel Macron’s address to the nation about the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Aupetit expressed his astonishment at Macron’s failure to mention Catholics as among those affected by the drama surrounding what is, after all, a functioning and active Catholic cathedral. “Le mot catholique n’est pas un gros mot,” he insisted. (“The word ‘Catholic’ is not a swear word.”)
In the aftermath of the fire which destroyed a major part of an edifice which means a great deal to France, many have focused on the significant architectural and historical losses. Fewer, however, have reflected upon the role which Notre-Dame has played in the life of French Catholicism, especially after the Revolution.
Before 1789, few would have identified Notre-Dame as French Catholicism’s epicentre. Like most things in pre-revolutionary France, much of the French Church’s energy focused upon the royal court at Versailles between 1661 and 1789. Even before then, the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims were considered more significant churches: the former on account of its sheer beauty, the latter as the traditional coronation site for France’s kings. As the city where Clovis, le roi de tous les Francs (king of all the Frankish tribes), was baptised on Christmas Day circa 499, it is Reims, not Paris, which even today is seen as representing France’s beginnings as la fille aînée de l’Église (the eldest daughter of the Church).
Like many other things in France, this state of affairs changed dramatically in 1789 and the subsequent movement of French political life back to Paris. Initially this didn’t benefit Notre-Dame at all. Following Pope Pius VI’s condemnation of the French National Assembly’s Constitution civile du clergé in March 1791, the Revolution’s anti-Catholic dimension became far more evident.
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