Notre Dame, tourists and terrorism

“Extremists could be inspired to conduct attacks during the Easter period. Exercise particular caution at holiday festivals, events, religious observances and religious sites at this time. These public events are vulnerable to attack by small groups or individuals. Consider the level of security in place before visiting these events and make an escape plan in advance for use in the event of a security incident. ”  DFAT

I visited Notre Dame cathedral today, and it was an experience that left me with conflicting emotions and a sense of disquiet. It was Good Friday morning, and I arrived just as the Stations of the Cross service was beginning in the forecourt. There was a significant police presence and heavily armed soldiers were patrolling the area. I was searched by a policeman before I was able to enter the forecourt. There were hoardes of tourists milling about, taking photos and admiring the architectural magnificence of the cathedral. Amongst them were the clergy who were conducting the Stations of the Cross and hundreds of people participating in the service.


As I walked towards the cathedral I was searched again by a policeman before I could enter. It was dim and quiet in the church but I was taken aback to see that mass was underway, yet tourists like myself were walking around the perimeter, most seeming to be oblivious to what was going on at the centre of the church. I joined them, and tried to understand this immense and ancient building that is a tourist must-see, an active place of worship, and a potential terrorist target.


The pews were cordoned off at the sides so I found a place to sit where I could observe the service. In this most secular country where there are churches and cathedrals everywhere, they are mostly empty; only about 5% of the population regularly attends mass, although 64% self-identify as Catholic. My worship is not expressed in the way I saw today, but I could see and admire the meaning for the congregation in their worship; against a backdrop of gawping tourists and armed soldiers, they were determined to mark a most significant day in the church calendar for Christians everywhere, and focussed entirely on that goal.  I found myself praying –  for freedom to worship for all, freedom from fear and terror, freedom from judgement, freedom from persecution.

I left soon afterwards, somehow uncomfortable staying inside as the service came to its conclusion. I came outside into the sunshine and the crowds were still milling, the police and soldiers still watchful. I took some photos of the exterior of the building, for it is an architectural wonder, but I also had a strong sense that this is a holy place, despite in some way its appearance, and that authentic worship has been a part of its history and meaning for 800 years, and will continue to be, even if only for a remnant.

Easter 2017 and 2108. (2017) Public Holidays Global. Retrieved 14 April, 2017.
Terrorist threat worldwide: Latest advice, 13 April 2017. (2017) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved 13 April, 2017.

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