By Martina Moyski
During a recent interview on SUD Radio, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris expressed his surprise that President Emmanuel Macron failed to mention a "word of compassion for the Catholic community" in his address to the French nation on April 16 about the burning — and rebuilding — of Notre Dame Cathedral. To underscore his point, the archbishop said: Le mot catholique n'est pas un gros mot ("The word Catholic is not a dirty word").
Archbishop Aupetit described Macron's omission as a "wound" added to the "bruising of having lost the cathedral" and felt that "a small word of compassion [for Christians] as we would have done for Jews or Muslims" would have been in order.
Asked if there is a taboo against pronouncing the word Christian, Archbishop Aupetit said: "Yes, no doubt," adding, "This cathedral was built in the name of Christ. It is a sum of stones inhabited by a spirit. It is not a functional building. Some sculptures are in places we can not see, it is for something bigger and more beautiful."
The "bigger and more beautiful" can be seen in France's Christian history and title of "eldest daughter of the Church."
The honorific can be traced to the baptism of Clovis, the first king and Christian sovereign of the Frankish tribes, on Christmas day c. 496 in the Church of Our Lady at Reims. Saint Clotilde, his queen, is said to have been instrumental in Clovis' conversion.
But France's Catholic lineage can be traced even further back to 47 A.D. when early disciples, including Martha, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus, landed in Provence bringing the body of St. Anne with them. From this boatload of disciples, the Catholic faith was spread throughout Gaul.
The cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris was built between 1160 and 1345. From its origins, it has been one of the most important sites in all of Christendom. It was built on the ruins of two earlier churches. The Portal of St. Anne is believed to have been recycled from the Church of St. Stephen (the first martyr), one of the two churches on top of which Notre Dame was built.
The two churches on which Notre Dame was built were themselves predated by a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter. Frédéric Martel, French journalist and author of In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, describes these archeological layers as "a kind of symbolic millefeuilles," arguing, "From the start, [Notre Dame] tells of a history of France wider than solely Catholicism" and "on all major occasions becomes a national symbol."
Notre Dame's "history hides the mystery of the relationship between religion and the state," Martel explains.
For many, Martel's description reveals the point on which the intersection of religion and the state — and the rebuilding of Notre Dame — pirouettes.
"There is a French hypocrisy when it comes to French identity," said Yasser Louati, co-founder of an NGO called the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, adding:
They will say it's secular country but all religions are welcomed, et cetera, but when Muslims use that secular space to exist as Muslims, they are rejected. At the same time, when Catholics use it, they will say, "Oh well, the French Catholic Church has been here for much longer."
Louati asked: "Where do you draw the line?"
Due to a law dating from 1872, the French Republic prohibits performing census by making a distinction between its citizens regarding their beliefs or race. Thus gathering accurate, unbiased and non-conflicting census data about religious affiliation is difficult.
A map of atheism in the world published by L'Obs, a weekly French newsmagazine, estimated that in 2015, at least 29% of France's population identified as atheists and 63% identified as non-religious.
A wide-ranging sociological study commissioned by the Bayard Group and published jointly by La Croix and Pèlerin in 2015 found that 5% of the French attend Mass regularly and 53% describe themselves as Catholic.
A study by Jean-Paul Gourévitch found 8.5 million adherents to Islam (often called the second religion of France) or about 1/8 of the population.
The French Interior Ministry estimated in 2017 that there is one place of worship per 1,300 Muslim worshipers and one place of worship per 275 Catholic worshipers.
When discussions of this discrepancy and of "France's shortage of mosques" are juxtaposed with the $1 billion raised for the reconstruction of Notre Dame, the amount becomes a coveted sum. In an article called "Our Lady: Are there too many gifts?" managers of the Notre Dame fund point out that excess funds could be "used to restore other religious [and other religions'] buildings under threat" since donations have exceeded the need for restorations.
The rebuilding Notre Dame is freighted with questions that reflect the diverse values of stakeholders, financiers, politicians and religious leaders. The business of rebuilding Notre Dame reflects the tug of war of identity politics and the murky relationship between church — and now mosque — and state.
Archbishop Aupetit said in his Easter Sunday homily that the "most important thing saved from the fire was not the Gothic architecture, nor the golden relics amassed over centuries, but the wafers in the building awaiting use in Communion."
"The body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, this crumb of bread that gives all meaning to the life of this splendid building" is the most important thing, the archbishop said.
Macron not only omitted "Catholics" in his April 16 speech; he also omitted reference to the person for whom the cathedral is named and dedicated and to whom all architectural details point: Mary, wife of Joseph, daughter of St. Anne and St. Joachim and Blessed Mother of Jesus.
To date, Macron has made no public comment regarding Abp. Aupetit's remarks.