Paris archbishop moved by the joy of workers, artisans involved in cathedral restoration

Archbishop Laurent Ulrich of Paris inserts the relics of Sts. Denis, Genevieve and the relics of Christ's crown of thorns into the golden rooster in Paris Dec. 16, 2023, prior to its installation at the top of the spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The rooster symbolizes resilience amid destruction after the devastating April 2019 fire. Restoration officials also revealed an anti-fire misting system is being placed under the cathedral’s roof. (OSV News photo/Christian Hartmann, Reuters)

PARIS (OSV News) -- Archbishop Laurent Ulrich found himself taking over the Archdioceses of Paris in the spotlight -- three years after the Notre Dame fire, as the world watched the cathedral being rebuilt, and waiting for the work to be completed.

"When I was welcomed as archbishop of Paris, Notre Dame was a cathedral of scaffolding," Archbishop Ulrich told OSV News in a written interview. "Now, it is changing day by day. The work is progressing, inside and out, and we are all looking forward to the joy of the reopening! It is a great honor and joy to be able to witness this extraordinary rebirth."

Upon his appointment in April 2022, Notre Dame instantly became a priority of the new archbishop, as he became the go-to personality in the church for state institutions responsible for rebuilding the cathedral. His main task was to work, alongside the cathedral's rector, on reestablishing the liturgical and pastoral life of Notre Dame that will welcome visitors again in December.

"What has moved me so much over the years is precisely the joy that has animated all those involved in the project since the day after the fire," the archbishop said. "All the trades worked together, craftsmen, artists … believers and nonbelievers alike. Competing companies joined forces. ... Nowadays, every time I visit the site, or meet those working on the liturgical furniture, sound and lighting, I witness this joy."

Archbishop Ulrich will officially enter the cathedral on Dec. 7, and on Dec. 8, he will preside over the Mass consecrating the new altar. In a February pastoral letter, he outlined the program for the six months of celebrations that will follow reopening of Notre Dame, which he wants to be available to as many people as possible.

It will be a key event for the Archdiocese of Paris, but Archbishop Ulrich also is attentive to the cathedral's influence beyond the nation's capital, and beyond France. "Through the emotion aroused by the fire, and the magnificent outpouring of solidarity that enabled it to be rebuilt, Notre Dame has demonstrated that it is not only the mother church of our diocese, but also a beacon, a spiritual point of reference for all French people, and, more broadly, for our world," he explained to OSV News.

The archbishop of Paris noted that Notre Dame is the French name of the Virgin Mary, which makes the cathedral "a strong sign." "Like the Mother of God, the cathedral is not the Light, but it reflects the Light; it is a peaceful and sure sign that the Lord is here, in our lives, that he is present in our world and that he comes to meet each person along the way," Archbishop Ulrich emphasized.

While the church in France has gone through difficult times in recent years, marked by the crisis of sexual abuse, many French bishops are now witnessing signs of hope and spiritual renewal.

"It is not due to the reconstruction of Notre Dame, but I can see that the restoration of the cathedral is nourishing the hope of many Christians," Archbishop Ulrich told OSV News. "Other events filled us with joy: the World Youth Day in Lisbon last summer, the pope's visit to Marseille, and more recently, the witness of so many catechumens who have met Christ in their lives and decided to follow him. ... For me, these are all signs for our church today."

The number of adult baptisms to which the archbishop referred was particularly high on Easter this year in France. Over 12,000 people, both adults and adolescents, were baptized during the Easter Vigil: 7,135 adults -- a number that was 31% more than in 2023, and over 5,000 teenagers ages 11 to 17 -- 50% more than in 2023.

In contrast, the social context in France is currently tense over issues on which the bishops have tried in vain to intervene. On March 8, the right to abortion was enshrined in the French Constitution, and two days later, President Emmanuel Macron announced an end-of-life bill opening the door to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Asked about the lack of weight given to the French bishops' warnings on these issues, Archbishop Ulrich was nonetheless positive. "I believe that the church's mission is to continue tirelessly bearing witness to the beauty and dignity of all life," he explained. "We must never tire of challenging society on what true progress is, and what true freedom is. And we must highlight and encourage the efforts made by many, believers and nonbelievers alike, to help, care for and accompany expectant mothers in difficulty as well as people at the end of life. We do not make the laws, but we can, we must, continue to say what we believe in, without despairing!"

Asked whether Christianity has a future in France and Europe, despite its disappearance as the cultural foundation of society's structures, Archbishop Ulrich said: "I am convinced it does!

"I am struck by how so many people around us, many of whom do not come from Catholic families, experience God's presence and love in their lives, and ask for baptism or confirmation. To make this request, they send me a letter in which they testify to their experience of God's closeness. The depth of these testimonies, all very different, give me much reason for hope," he told OSV News.

"God is indeed at work in France and in Europe even if we do not always see it," the archbishop of Paris concluded. "The Lord invites us to bring the good news where we are, in the world that is ours," he said.

"It is this world that He loves and leads. At Notre Dame, crowds of pilgrims and visitors will be able to experience His presence and unconditional welcome, in the beauty of a work of art, a celebration, a church song ... This is what we are working on with great zeal."


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