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Notre Dame fire came at a difficult time for French Catholics

The annual Chrism Mass that was supposed to be hosted at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris took place instead Wednesday at Saint-Sulpice church. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

PARIS — Even before a fire damaged its central symbol, the Catholic Church in France had been dealing with a particularly painful period.

A French cardinal took a leave of absence after being convicted of failing to properly handle a sexual abuse case. Several churches across the country had been mysteriously vandalized or damaged. Another famous Parisian church, Saint-Sulpice, was scorched by a fire last month that ruined a stained-glass window and caked parts of the interior with soot.

“It’s been a difficult last few months,” said Jean-Claude Esparcieux, the vice president of Saint-Sulpice’s pastoral committee.

The partial destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral — and the wellspring of national emotion that followed — demonstrated how even a vastly secularized country can be bound, in moments, to the grand monuments of religion.

Some French Catholics predict that Mass attendance may see a short-term jump in the aftermath of the fire.

They are less hopeful that the partial destruction of a famed symbol might help restore the Catholic Church, which has been on its heels because of declining interest in the faith, sexual abuse scandals and charges that it is socially out of step.

Some Catholics even have seen in the outpouring over Notre Dame a subtle reminder of the Catholic Church’s diminished relevance and clout. Notre Dame had been Paris’s most visited tourist attraction; after it burned, it was celebrated as an architectural landmark, as an artistic marvel, even as a French national emblem. But it had also been a place of worship that held a daily Mass.

The cathedral’s “principal treasure,” said the archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Michel Aupetit, in one French television interview, was the “believers who prayed there.”

Notre Dame did not have parishioners who belonged to the church. It did not host baptisms, weddings or funerals. But it was open every day for Mass. And during Holy Week, it would put its holy relics on display.

In France and across Europe, pews are emptying, seminary classes are shrinking and some parishes are importing priests from other continents as a way to stay afloat.

At the Vatican, the question of how to stem the tide of secularization has perplexed the hierarchy, and Pope Francis last year convened a meeting of bishops who spent weeks discussing ways in which the church could evolve and become more relevant to young people. But the Holy See has also acknowledged that churches are falling out of use, and its officials have discussed best practices for the repurposing of shuttered buildings.

In France, as in most Western European countries, the nonpracticing Christians make up the largest share of the population — beyond that of any practicing religion. According to the Pew Research Center, some 60 percent of French people identify as Catholic. But only 1 in 10 prays every day. Other polls have shown rising mistrust of the church.

“Over the last months, some believers have come to the church saying they want to talk directly to God,” Esparcieux said. “They don’t trust the priests anymore.”

As Esparcieux spoke Wednesday inside his church, which was built in the 17th century, people were hauling wooden pews into position, expecting a crowd of several thousand for an evening Mass — one that had initially been planned for Notre Dame.

But in the hours before, Saint-Sulpice — which was used for the filming of “The Da Vinci Code” — was more a tourist site than a house of worship. Some 50 people sat for a noon Mass. They were easily outnumbered by tourists who walked in, gazed up, explored the crevasses, took photographs and quickly left. Outside, on the church steps, teenagers listened to hip-hop music. Students from a nearby university filled the plaza, eating lunch under a statue of an old archbishop.

“For the huge majority of people, churches are museums,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist at the European University Institute.

Roy mentioned that some French Catholics felt the government had not responded adequately to the vandalization of the churches. The response was criticized on traditionalist Catholic websites.

“So the feeling among Catholics is, ‘Yeah, thank you for helping on Notre Dame. But it doesn’t change your attitude to our faith. You don’t protect us.’ ”

France deeply abides by the policy of laïcité, a separation of church and state that has been in place since 1905, when France broke away from the church’s grip. Although the concept might be familiar to Americans, the way it is practiced is different. A U.S. presidential candidate could easily say he believes in God. But in France, virtually all mention of religion is wiped from the public space. One French politician, Nathalie Loiseau, the former minister for European affairs, was recently criticized for advertising on her political agenda that she was going to Mass. One parliamentarian said, in turn, that faith should remain a “private affair.”

France does have some paradoxical stances: Some of its national holidays coincide with Catholic ones. But it has banned religious symbols, like the veil, from public schools.

A portion of Catholics have tried to push back against what they say is a Godless daily life. In 2013, hundreds of thousands rallied against the legalization of same-sex marriage, with the backing of Catholic higher-ups. But the bills passed, and polls showed a majority of French were in favor of the law.

Philippe Bordeyne, the rector of the Catholic University of Paris, said he is aware that some young people who identify Catholics do not follow all of its teachings on sexuality. But he said he knows many young Parisians who do attend Mass, and who value the chance to contemplate, to be among others in a spiritual community.

“It remains a minority,” Bordeyne said. “I believe it will be the start of a process. We don’t have a cathedral anymore. We are forced to rebuild.”

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Quentin Ariès in Paris contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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