The front page of today’s Washington Post showed a crowd of thousands packed into the plaza in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the congregation for a requiem mass offered for the victims of Friday night’s terrorist attacks. The Eiffel Tower, notably darkened these days, is surely the structure most deeply associated with the City of Light today.
But the Cathedral, on the Ile de France, has a much more central and iconic role in the city’s history. The Kilometre Stone, from which all French roads are measured, is etched in its plaza. It is probably the world’s most famous example of Gothic architecture, which originated at the nearby Abbey of San Denis and reached its highest point in the Northern French cathedrals of the high Middle Ages. Notre Dame speaks of an era when France was truly the center of Europe, an age of great monasteries, the world’s finest university, and the home of chivalry’s fairest flower, the saintly King Louis. The French kings took the Virgin’s emblem, the fleur-de-lys as their standard, and the Cathedral is dedicated to their beloved patroness.
Even then, Paris was a city of wine, women and song, but without the world-weariness, the empty hedonism of the eighteenth century revolution and the nineteenth century aestheticism so beloved by its contemporary elite. The pleasures of this life were received as a gifts from a good and benevolent Creator, used with joy. Artistic excellence has long flourished here, sometimes undergirded by a deep and sincere piety. The City of Light was the home of Voltaire, Baudelaire, Brigitte Bardot and Sartre, but also of Bishop Bossuet, Pascal, Thomas Aquinas and San Sulpice.
Which means, of course, that to gather for prayer at Notre Dame in the midst of a national crisis is the most natural of all things for Parisians to do. To celebrate the Church’s greatest sacrament at the heart of the city whose theologians have perhaps interpreted its meaning and enriched its celebration more than any other is a profoundly fitting act. To #prayforParis, as millions have around the world, is more than a benevolent gesture. It is a call for God to bless and protect a place long dedicated to His glory, where His Name has been hallowed continually for thousands of years.
But for many of the city’s secularists, these prayers have no place in the way the city expresses its grief. The only answer to violence sown by a particular sort of religious fundamentalist can be a retreat from religion altogether. As the Posts’ Maura Judkin noted in her article:
“Many in France perceive themselves as a secular nation besieged by religious fundamentalists, so a call for prayer showed a jarring disconnect. ‘The terrorists pray. Good people think,’ was one common sentiment on Twitter. Another response that quickly went viral was a drawing by French cartoonist Joann Sfar, who posted a series of drawing reacting to the attacks, with one frame in English that reads ‘Friends from the whole world, that you for #PrayforParis, but we don’t need more religion. Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Paris is about life.” (“Empathy or Ego in Our Postings on Paris?” Washington Post. 16 Nov. 2015, C3).
Surely this failure of imagination challenges those of us who do pray for Paris, for a renewal of its joy, for abundant life for those who died so tragically on its streets. What would Saint Thomas think of “The terrorists pray. Good people think?” How sad it is that for these secularists religion suggests only repression and death.
The prayers I offer in response to the tragedy, at the Altar yesterday and in the days ahead are for the repose of the dead and for peace and comfort for the living. But they are also for the fruitful witness of those who continue to profess the faith of Christ in a land that has so largely turned from its ancient hope. This may be a unique moment for our brothers and sisters to witness to a religious vision that responds to the deep questions of life in a way that champagne and kissing simply cannot. It may be their moment to speak of life in Paris, of religion which rejoices in the good things of this world, and looks in hope to even greater things to come.
Another page in today’s Post showed a picture of a shrine to the victims. Piles of roses were there, and signs bearing the revolution’s bloody slogan, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. But also, unremarked by the caption, was an icon of the Madonna and Child: the bearer of hope, the joy of the whole world, the source of true Life.