On a cold winter’s night in January 2000, I sat in a dimly-lit Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris listening to a performance given by Olivier Latry on the grand organ of Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity), a work by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. The experience was enthralling—not only the phenomenal sound of the grand organ, which completely enveloped the interior at times with thunderous intensity, but also the sheer magnificence of the extraordinary building, so full of history, beauty and mystique. A chance meeting with Messiaen’s widow Yvonne Loriod, who was at the performance, brought home the fact of Notre-Dame’s continuing importance as a meeting place between faith and culture.

Notre-Dame is like an enormous living time capsule, a repository of French history down through the centuries to this day. Construction began in 1163 on Île de la Cité, under the reign of King Louis VII. The cathedral was largely completed by 1345. Through the centuries, there have been many alterations and additions. It has also faced the threat of destruction on more than one occasion. The Notre-Dame music school has had an enormous influence on Western music, being the first place to produce polyphonic repertoire that gained wide circulation.

During my week-long visit to Paris in 2000, I was drawn back to Notre-Dame daily, to experience the vitality of what is literally the heart of the nation. All major thoroughfares in France lead to and from Notre-Dame de Paris. Away from the constant murmur of tourists shuffling along the designated path through the cathedral, solace could be found in the chapel in the apse where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, or by attending chanted Vespers and Mass in the choir area.

Subsequent visits over the years have given me an opportunity to discover more of this fascinating building and, in November 2017, the opportunity to play the choir organ. This was thanks to Johann Vexo, one of the choir organists of Notre-Dame. (He was playing for the Mass during which the alarms sounded the night of the fateful fire in 2019). Mr Vexo had given a concert at St Philip’s Church, Blackburn North, earlier in 2017, and has performed on several occasions in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. I was able to witness his skills during Sunday Mass in Notre-Dame, where in the great French tradition, the choir organ and the grand organ take different roles, each in alternation.

The power of the liturgy is what truly animates a building like Notre-Dame and can have a dramatic effect on both pilgrim and tourist. One famous example is that of Paul Claudel (1868–1955), who on Christmas Day in 1886, when he was 18 years old, attended High Mass at the cathedral. Later in the day, he returned for Vespers. He subsequently recalled listening to the psalms and Magnificat at Vespers and how this experience deeply changed him:

It was the gloomiest winter day and the darkest rainy afternoon over Paris … Then occurred the event which dominates my entire life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a strength of adherence, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with such powerful conviction, with such a certainty leaving no room for any kind of doubt, that since then all the books, all the arguments, all the incidents and accidents of a busy life have been unable to shake my faith, nor indeed to affect it in any way.

While such a dramatic conversion may not be granted to every visitor to a Gothic cathedral, it does serve as an important reminder to us that art, architecture and music are vital tools that have served well Catholic efforts at evangelisation. In an age of draconian minimalism, where we have come to accept a functional approach to church architecture—the building as a mere shelter for what goes on inside—it is good to reflect on why people are so drawn to the beautiful churches, large and small, of times past, places that inspire a homesickness for heaven. The fact that Notre-Dame Cathedral occupies such an important place in the heart of French people, whether believers or not, shows that what we build matters—that our architectural and artistic efforts help people to find a home.

Ritual, resolution and resurrection

The relationship between Notre-Dame and the arts was celebrated in a recent production by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir, inspired by their conductor Paul Dyer. Entitled Notre-Dame—A story of ritual, resolution and resurrection, performances were held in Melbourne and Sydney. The innovative production featured sacred and secular music of France from mainly the baroque period, interspersed with a script written by Alana Valentine, following a fictional Australian engineer who is engaged to work on the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris in early 2019. Upon arriving in Paris, she meets a man who gives her an eloquent tour of the cathedral. The mysterious tour guide turns out to be the ghost of Victor Hugo, his words verbatim from his famous novel. Enhancing the experience were four screens hung at the back of the stage and shaped like cathedral windows. Projected onto the screens were film clips and images of Notre-Dame Cathedral—even footage of the famous hunchback swinging on one of the bells!

The fact that Notre-Dame Cathedral occupies such an important place in the heart of French people, whether believers or not, shows that what we build matters—that our architectural and artistic efforts help people to find a home.

The selection of music was geared towards providing suitable, and often thrilling, musical commentary on what was happening in the script, rather than being a catalogue of pieces from the musical treasury of the cathedral itself. Perhaps most dramatic were the moments recalling the devastating fire that engulfed the roof of Notre-Dame on 15 April 2019. Le Chaos by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666–1747) aptly accompanied the scenes of chaos as the fire raged through ‘the forest’, with the spire eventually collapsing through the stone-vaulted ceiling. This was followed by the sombre Introite from Messe de Requiem by André Campra (1660–1744). Images displayed on the screens showed the large crowds that had gathered at different vantage points, looking on in disbelief as Our Lady of Paris was ablaze. Who could forget those scenes of spontaneous prayers that arose from the people of Paris, especially the chant that began, as through tearful eyes they sought the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary: ‘Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de graces …’?

The performance was a triumph of magnificent music brilliantly presented, an engaging script that recalled all that is so inspiring about Notre-Dame de Paris, and powerful images that evoked the mystery and beauty of the cathedral. It certainly shows that the richness of Catholic culture can provide much inspiration to the wider culture.

With the restoration of Notre-Dame continuing apace, we have seen an opportunity for the Church to engage artists and craftsmen with all the diverse talents and areas of expertise needed in such a complex project. The much-anticipated re-opening of Notre-Dame to the public later this year will allow us to see the fruits of their labour.

In an address on ‘The cathedral from the Romanesque to the Gothic architecture: The theological background’ (18 November 2009), Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that one of the merits of Gothic cathedrals ‘is that the whole Christian and civil community participated in their building and decoration in harmonious and complementary ways. The lowly and the powerful, the illiterate and the learned; all participated because in this common house all believers were instructed in the faith.’

Perhaps the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral will be the starting point for a fresh appreciation of the way of beauty that can lead all people to encounter the luminous truth enshrined in our great churches, leading us all more deeply into the mystery of Christ.

Reconstruction of the medieval choir framework of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is pictured in Paris on 12 January 2024. (Photo: OSV News/Sarah Meyssonnier, Reuters.)

All photos featured (unless specified otherwise) have been supplied courtesy of Fr Nicholas Dillon.