On March 17, a month almost to the day before the great fire devastated Notre Dame Cathedral, another fire broke out in Paris’ second biggest church, Saint Sulpice, two subway stops away from Notre Dame, causing no injuries but resulting in damage that some sources estimate at €1 million. While investigators believe that the Notre Dame fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit, the blaze at Saint Sulpice was set deliberately, and it was not the first; as Catholic News Service reported on March 28, “more than 10 churches have been hit since the beginning of February, with some set on fire while others were severely desecrated or damaged.” But few news outlets, in Europe or the Americas, picked up the story, and the papers that did report it kept it low-key.
In 2018, 875 churches were looted or vandalized in France, according to statistics issued by the French police; the Gatestone Institute, citing a German report, says 1,063 “attacks on Christian churches or symbols” took place in France last year, marking an increase of more than 17 percent over 2017. In February 2019 alone there were reportedly 47 church assaults, including arson, in some cases with statues of Jesus and Mary smashed to pieces, crosses drawn on walls in excrement, tabernacles violated, and consecrated hosts strewn everywhere.
These attacks on French churches are new wounds for an already painful situation in that country, in which dozens of beautiful and historic churches have been pulled down in the last several decades in the name of efficiency, on account of their very low attendance rate. (The demolition of some of these churches can be viewed online. See, for example, this video of Saint Jacques d’Abbeville being demolished.)
In 2013 the French Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne warned that only about half of the 45,000 parish churches in France were in a good state of repair. The magazine predicted that 10,000 churches would be in ruins in a decade’s time due to water infiltration, crumbling walls, and trees breaking through the roofs.
In addition, a massive number of buildings are not in immediate danger but are slowly decaying and in need of repair, the magazine reported: “Thousands of churches are more or less abandoned and if neglected, will die in the next few years. Not out of euthanasia, but simply due to the indifference that makes us turn the other way.”
In the 1960s, when he was Minister of Culture, writer André Malraux placed France’s Christian heritage at the center of the Ministry’s activities. Today it has been marginalized, placed in an ancillary role to everything else. Some Catholics in France believe this is not for lack of money, but on the basis of a secular ideology.
In July 2017, the authorities chose to carry out the demolition of the Church of Saint Martin at Sablé-sur-Sarthe. The 19th-century church had been closed for decades due to insufficient upkeep, and apparently posed a danger to the safety of the neighborhood. It was torn down during the week that marked the anniversary of the murder of Father Jacques Hamel, the parish priest whose throat was slit by Islamic terrorists in front of his altar as he said Mass. That the long-delayed demolition of Saint Martin should begin in that very week suggested to some French Catholics a worrying indifference to the sensitivities of the country’s faithful, even the lapsed Catholics or Catholics in name only, whose sense of identity with Christian tradition is on the rise.
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