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The Culture That Conceived and Built Notre Dame Was Supremely Self-confident. Is Europe Confident Now?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

As Notre Dame, the great Gothic cathedral of Paris, was gutted by fire, French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to reach the hearts of his people. He didn't disappoint them.

Oratory from politicians doesn't put out fires. It doesn't save relics so important to the Roman Catholic faithful, such as the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.

And oratory won't save Christianity in a modern, left-dominated and secular Western Europe undergoing great cultural change.

It is a Europe that is spiritually and culturally adrift, while holding Christianity firmly at a distance. And the European political class wishes that its arms were much longer.

The cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris is firmly rooted in the West, but the fire awakens us to what has been lost.

Notre Dame is iconic, a monument that speaks to beauty and to France's place as a great and civilized society.

And Macron vowed to rebuild the stunning and uplifting medieval cathedral of Paris.

"Notre Dame is our history, it's our literature, it's our imagery," Macron told his people. "It's the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations. ... I'm telling you all tonight -- we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny."

Some 13 million tourists visit Notre Dame each year. It is the most visited monument in all of France. Yet it is more than a monument and greater than the work of generations of inspired medieval masons and architects.

It is a great church gutted by fire during western Christianity's holiest of weeks, with the devout praying for salvation of their souls and the resurrection of Christ, as Roman Catholics and Protestants prepare for Easter Sunday.

I've been overwhelmed, and perhaps you have, too, by the other stories attached to the catastrophe.

By the heroism of the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire department, who was credited with risking his life to save the crown of thorns and consecrated bread and wine.

And of course, by the story of people coming forward to donate to the rebuilding, and by those who prayed and sang outside as the fire raged within.

All that is part of the Notre Dame story now, as is the iconic physical sweep of the cathedral over Paris. But in the rush of news, we might want to consider the truly astounding aspect of Notre Dame.

What it says about the culture that built it, a culture of great confidence.

Because only a culture that is supremely confident in itself could ever have conceived of such a monument, let alone actually build and then maintain it for centuries.

The French culture that built Notre Dame -- construction began in 1163 -- was not unsure of itself. It was not consumed by sophistry. It was not a culture where ridicule was the coin on the realm, and hypocrisy was its twin.

It was a culture that could look clearly to heaven, unashamed.

Notre Dame stood through the plague and the Hundred Years' War. It withstood the French Revolution, when radicals of the time sought to turn it into something of a secular church of reason.

In the last century, Notre Dame withstood two world wars.

And for all that, President Macron's defiant vow to rebuild is inspiring indeed. It required courage.

Especially given the climate of the modern day. According to a Pew Research Center survey published in 2018, Western Europe has become one of the world's most secular regions.

"Although the vast majority of adults say they were baptized, today many do not describe themselves as Christians," Pew found. "Some say they gradually drifted away from religion, stopped believing in religious teachings, or were alienated by scandals or church positions on social issues."

And not just one scandal, but scandal after scandal, worldwide. With church attendance plummeting, the Financial Times reported, also in 2018, on European fertility rates.

"Women in France and Sweden can expect to have 1.92 and 1.88 children over their lifetimes respectively, but it is generally accepted that fertility rates have to exceed around 2.1 in order for a population to replace itself without inward migration boosting numbers. Across the EU the average fertility rate is 1.6."

Of course, the influx of new immigrants to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa will change that equation. And the wholesale rejection of Christianity by Europeans who say they were born and raised Christian is also part of that equation.

All of it changes culture, or at least shapes it. And religion is tied to culture.

The Islamic newcomers to Europe, while seeking safety, human rights and opportunities denied them in their nations of origin, may be unsure about many things. But they are not unsure about their religion.

They're not ashamed to pray. They're not self-conscious about their beliefs as are many of the native Europeans. Their women have children.

But the fire of Notre Dame, gutting the cathedral in Holy Week, the people singing hymns outside and Macron vowing to rebuild, all of it may waken France to what was, and what is, and what could be.

"This history is ours," Macron said of Notre Dame. "And it burns. It burns, and I know the sadness so many of our fellow French feel."

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