The French Soul, in Stone

Notre-Dame: The Soul of France; by Agnès Poirier; One World Publications; 256 pp., $26.95

Kneeling in public remains rare in France. Even though Muslim crowds in the banlieues (suburbs) have recently taken to praying in the streets, religious display still shocks the country’s secular ethos, which prefers to severely confine religion to the private sphere. 

So, when a motley lot of tourists and locals fell on their knees in witnessing Notre-Dame’s spire and 13th century wooden roof ablaze on a spring afternoon in 2019, foreign correspondents largely failed to grasp the moment’s deep religious significance. France’s wider reaction to the fire—and the ensuing uncertainty over the cathedral’s future—revealed a paradox: A nation notorious for its public laïcité (often translated as “secularism”) and declining faith suddenly embraced its deep Catholic roots.

Agnès Poirier’s book recounts in a dramatic fashion those grave and heady hours, as well as many other key moments in Notre-Dame’s esteemed history that have bound its fate to that of France. It is a timely reminder that under its thick layer of secularism, France remains staunchly Catholic at heart.

Paris was Christendom’s second capital and the seat of a powerful diocese...

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