In Georges Bernanos’s historical play Dialogues of the Carmelites, the scene is grim for the Catholic Church. The nuns and priests are hunted by the Revolution. Everywhere the Church seems to be collapsing. One sister asks what shall happen when a lack of priests deprives French people of the sacraments. Bernanos has the Mother Superior reply with an inspired answer: “When priests are lacking, martyrs are abundant, and so the balance of grace is restored.”
Elsewhere, Bernanos calls this confidence in the restoration of the balance of grace, this hope, “the largest and the hardest victory.” Hope is “a heroic disposition of the soul.” As the Carmelites discover when they conquer their fear of persecution and their fear for the people of France, hope’s “highest form is when despair is overcome.”
Like the French, Americans share in France’s sorrow over the fire at Notre-Dame. Like the French, they have offered many interpretations of its significance. Yet as they do so, they should reflect on these observations from Bernanos. He warns against that habit with which conservative romantics who love the past are often tempted: a conservative melancholia, or disdain for the present. This leads to despair.
This disdain is misguided. In the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire, some Americans have flirted with three versions of disdain for the present: disdain for France since the Revolution, disdain for France’s successful transmission of the past into the present, and disdain for the faith of the French expressed in the sorrowful hours of present. We must resist these temptations and fight off melancholia.
First, much American political and cultural commentary trades in disdain for France since the Revolution, painting an image of a spiritually dead Europe and a spiritually dead France. This image is false and has since the Revolution been false. Undoubtedly the Revolution ravaged the Church. Following the Revolution, the nineteenth century is a long record of the failure to restore the ancien régime and the old position of the Church.
Yet we must also acknowledge the ancestral faith of the Church that persisted and flourished in the nineteenth century. There are the martyrs of the Revolution about whom Bernanos writes. There are the Marian apparitions announcing the Immaculate Conception in Paris and at Lourdes, leading to St. Bernadette and the start of the Lourdes pilgrimages. The Revolution and Napoleonic Wars continually interrupted the studies of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, but this poorly educated priest still converted thousands through the confessional. The Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24 in 1897, St Thérèse of Lisieux, would be venerated throughout France within a decade of her death. In 1905 the ancestral faith challenged and outlasted the anti-clericals who held the reins of power. In 1944, the ancestral faith sang in earnest the Magnificat and Te Deum of the Liberation at Notre-Dame. In 1984, when the socialists attempted to suppress Catholic schools, a million turned out to protest—as they did in 2013 in the Manif pour tous. Guided by the lives of the saints before, during, and after the Revolution, France gives witness to the living God. What Charles Péguy calls the Christian mystique, a mystique that transcends the political opposition between the Revolution and the ancien régime, has endured.
Second, Americans are rightfully anxious over the task of transmission—whether the knowledge, insights, and practices of the past have been adequately preserved in the present. Hence the damage to a venerable monument of the Middle Ages can prompt us to ask what Rachel Fulton Brown asked recently: “Do we have the skills necessary to imitate the work of the medieval masons and other artisans? Does anyone know how to make glass in the right colors, never mind replicate the medieval designs?”
But we err if we pose these questions as a lament for lost knowledge. France takes the task of transmission seriously. France is full of organizations whose sole purpose has been to transmit this knowledge from the past to the present. Take the practice of “compagnonnage,” used in medieval craftsman guilds and perpetuated today by associations such as Les Compagnons du Devoir et du Tour de France. The answer to Brown’s questions is a resounding “yes.” The patrimony cannot be taken for granted. It is fragile. But this does not mean the will to transmit it is lost. To the contrary: a mournful reminder of its fragility elevates this topic before a nation keen to preserve it.
Finally, we come to the most serious temptation we face in the aftermath of the fire: the temptation to disdain the French for lacking faith. It is true that many French wish to rebuild the cathedral for reasons that have nothing to do with giving God praise. Yet we should be pleased with the goodness of a political and cultural class that with one voice acknowledges the cathedral as the common heritage of the French. They may not pronounce the act of faith that was required to build Notre-Dame de Paris, but in doing so they acknowledge that they are the descendants of those who made that act of faith. Those outside France who pledge their support acknowledge what that act of faith has brought to the world. Though we often forget it, we are bound together by our shared Christian heritage. For the French philosopher François-Xavier Bellamy, a brutal disaster like this recalls the strength of this common bond. There is a desire to continue the heritage that preceded us, and which must continue after us. This is a sign of hope.
We also have a sign of hope in those French who did witness to their faith and their will to praise God. While the cathedral burned, the firefighters and their chaplain, Father Fournier, risked their lives to save the relics and especially the Blessed Sacrament. As Fournier told the media, they did so because they did not wish to see “someone they love perish in the flames.” Alone in the cathedral with the Blessed Sacrament, he stopped to give benediction, “to encourage Jesus to help us save his house.”
Faith is earnest and visible throughout Paris. Throughout the long night of April 15, and in subsequent days, thousands kept a prayerful vigil in the streets or in the churches. This is not a freak occurrence, but the effect of a quiet rise in self-confident, practicing Catholics. For example, adult baptisms have increased by over 50 percent in the past decade. What Benedict recently called the “Church of Martyrs” continues to show its facets in modern France, from Father Jacques Hamel to those who mournfully sang the Ave Maria when the spire fell. They give witness to their faith in the resurrection.
The faith of France may not be perfect. But was it ever? It is doubtful how often purity of faith persisted in the Middle Ages. We cannot know how often it persisted in the builders of the cathedral, how many placed their stones for love of God and how many placed them for mundane reasons. In the Middle Ages and in modern times, cathedrals have been built and rebuilt to help us in our prayer to purify our faith. In France, that prayer purifies and calls the French to remain faithful to the vocation of their baptism: to give witness to the gospel throughout the world, as done in the past.
As Pope John Paul II asked of Notre-Dame in his own prayer: Teach us hope.
Nathan Pinkoski is an Associate Research Scholar with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and a Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University. J. A. A. Pateron writes from Paris.