There was no Christmas Mass at Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, the headlines read, the first such lapse in two centuries.
In ordinary terms, that was not really news. Yawning holes in the roof still open the Gothic nave to winter rain eight months after the great fire, and not even workers are allowed in the middle because of the damaged roof beams precariously dangling above. The head of the task force charged with repairing the cathedral has promised that a religious service will be held on April 16, 2024, a day after the fifth anniversary of the blaze, which would fulfill a pledge by President Emmanuel Macron to repair Notre-Dame within five years. But that’s optimistic — debates still swirl over how to rebuild the roof and spire that burned and collapsed.
But there was Christmas for the faithful of Notre-Dame. The clergymen of the cathedral have been using the nearby church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, a landmark only a couple of centuries younger than Notre-Dame that once ministered to the royalty of the nearby Louvre Palace, and all the services of Christmas are being celebrated there. A liturgical platform resembling Notre-Dame’s has been constructed there, and the cathedral’s great 14th-century “Virgin of Paris” sculpture, untouched by the inferno, has been temporarily placed in Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois.
Still, even if there is no surprise, and no gap in religious observance, it is terribly sad for anyone who has ever been to Paris in winter to think that this year — and next year, and the year after that and for God knows how many more years — there will be no children gazing spellbound at the large, detailed crèche, no candles flickering at midnight to the thunder of the great organ for the “Messe de la Nuit,” no sea of awe-struck tourists looking forward to recounting how they celebrated Christmas at one of Europe’s most familiar and wonderful landmarks.
It is a reminder of how great an emptiness the fire left in the heart of Paris and far beyond. Notre-Dame is more than a church, more than a masterpiece of medieval architecture, more even than a symbol of one of the great cities of the world. Like many of the earth’s great cultural landmarks, it has a life of its own; it is a living character in art, literature, music and legend, and a place where a tired passer-by can drop in for some rest and quiet thought. It carries a message that every visitor can interpret in his or her own way.
There is nothing symbolic or spiritual, however, about the turbulent aftermath of the fire that broke out among the oak rafters of the roof on April 15. To this day it remains unclear how the fire started or why the response was slow, and there is still a risk of further collapse. The 460 tons of lead that were engulfed in flames created a major health threat in central Paris. And though more than $1 billion has been raised or pledged, controversy rages over how to restore the roof. Proposals range from a faithful reproduction of the old roof and spire to a glass roof, a “spire” of light and even a rooftop swimming pool.
The debate has divided the two houses of Parliament, with the lower house opting to consider all options and the Senate insisting on a straight reconstruction. The chief architect, Philippe Villeneuve, has insisted on keeping to the original but has been told to “shut his mouth” by Jean-Louis Georgelin, a retired general tapped by President Macron to head the project.
But then Paris has always been a battleground of past and present. The haunting beauty of the city is in part a product of a program of urban renewal in the 19th century led by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III, which included wholesale razing of old neighborhoods to create the now-beloved boulevards, parks and delicate facades. The Eiffel Tower, the premier icon of France, was initially spurned by artists and intellectuals when it was raised for the 1889 World’s Fair. Another Parisian landmark, the glass-and-metal pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre designed by I.M. Pei, likewise came under withering criticism when it was first proposed.