I made my way down Rue Decartes crossed Rue Ecoles; then crisscrossed into a couple of back streets and popped out on Boulevard Saint Germain just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. When I was only a few blocks away, I heard the peal of the bells as they were announcing Mass and my feet immediately stepped up the pace. I am staying only a ten minute walk from Notre Dame but I knew the crowds would be arriving along with me.
I was not to be disappointed as the line to enter the cathedral was all the way across the square that lies at the foot of the front door. After standing in this line for about five minutes I realized that most of these people were tourists aiming to walk through the cathedral not attend Mass. I observed some locals cutting through the gates at the door walking past the patrons in the line and making their way inside for Mass. I swiftly followed them. My guess had been correct.
Now let me describe the mayhem that ensues during Mass at Notre Dame. The parish ropes off the cathedral in the middle where Mass attendees are separated from the hords of people who are walking through the cathedral. This is my one complaint. They allow tourists to continue to walk around the cathedral while Mass is in process. I disagree with this and wish the church would close the cathedral to tourists during Mass. It’s only about 45 to 60 minutes and surely the people can wait. The tourists stand behind the ropes and gawk and take photos as if it is a three ring circus on display for their viewing pleasure instead of a Holy Communion. Some of them also go into the roped off area attempting to attend the service but give themselves away by taking video and photos during the Mass. At least the church tries to maintain a manner of sacredness as they have ushers who walk around and quietly tell these people to put their cameras away. The church even has signs with pictures of cameras with a red line crossed through it showing that no photos are allowed during the service. People sometimes amaze me. Is nothing sacred?
Now that I have that out of my system, let me say that it is a beautiful Mass. The acoustics in this Cathedral are absolutely wonderful so the voices of the choir sound so “angelic.” The procession into the church is quite beautiful also. The choir enters first wearing royal blue robes singing an anthem as they go and make their way towards the huge cross behind the altar. Of course, the organ is a huge pipe organ in the rear alcove of the church and practically vibrates the seats when it is played loudly. And it is played loudly. The church is always dimly lit with the alter bearing a large cross which is illuminated. It is quite majestic.
At 11:30 each Sunday Notre Dame holds an international Mass which has readings in French and English; sometimes a portion is in German. The program is written mostly in French but has some English translations. Usually the Gospel reading is written in English. However, it is spoken in French. I felt really good today as I could follow the written French version of the Gospel and keep up by recognizing words. I even managed to sing a bit in French when the cantor led the congregation in a Response that was written in the program.
I have been to Mass at Notre Dame almost every time I have visited Paris, and it is always a special time for me. I never fail to get emotional when I attend. The emotion does not transpire from feeling close to God because it is extremely hard to feel any holiness in the spectacle that is going on while you are there. Emotion surges up in me because it reminds me of how small and trivial I truly am in the grand scheme of things. I always think of my meager roots in this world having been born and raised in a little “podunk” town called Adel, Georgia to a social worker and a used car salesman. Having been the salt of the earth kind of people who worked hard for their money and lived through many difficult times, they kindly passed on this ethic of hard work and strength that embodies my soul and makes me who I am today. The tears sting my eyes when I realize how truly blessed I am to have come from such a place and to be standing in one of the world’s greatest cathedrals. It is something many cannot boast. However, this experience does not cause me to be boastful but more humble. The emotions well and fill me up.
I have mixed feelings about the way Mass is handled at Notre Dame. I do understand their reasons but none the less I believe it takes away from the sacredness and the holy experience the Mass should be. When the Lector made his announcements at the end of the service and told us to go in peace, the crowd immediately rushed to the front with cameras high above their heads flashing pictures of the cross and the altar. It was somewhat absurd. Absolutely no reverence was observed. Many of the devout remained in their seats to meditate and kneel for prayer which is what it is suppose to be----not a tourist attraction. There are the usual souvenir stands inside the church door full of overpriced rosaries, books, crosses, and other relics. It is a way for the church to support the upkeep and still allow the thousands of people to filter through each day at no charge. At least they do not charge a fee to see this beautiful cathedral. I do assume that the church receives the proceeds of the sales and not the Maire de Paris.
Let me reiterate that even with all the crowds and flashing cameras the experience is still special if you block all of it out and concentrate on why you are there. I do not remember noticing it as much during past visits since I was seated in the middle or back area of the Cathedral. Today I happened to enter when the escorts had just filled up the middle and began to seat to the sides and I secured a front row seat. I was able to see more of the crowds beyond the ropes and observe how they stopped to film and photograph the service. The people continued to talk and point, etc. with little regard to what was really going on at the moment---Holy Communion.
I am always glad and have a feeling of satisfaction when I attend Mass at Notre Dame. It is a special experience that I hope I have the opportunity to do many times in my lifetime.
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