THIS afternoon, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris prayed for the welfare of France and for the soldiers engaged in the great battle which is still, despite the German retreat, raging near the gates of the capital. It has been a wonderful day in the history of France, the reconciliation of the Church and State after many years of bitter conflict. Cardinal Amette, Archbishop of Paris, upon his return from the election of the new Pope, issued an appeal to the clergy and people of Paris “to assemble in the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the afternoon of September thirteenth to pray for the safety of France.” The result was far beyond expectation.
When I read the notice I said to myself that I must be sure to get there a full hour before the time set three o’clock. But as all Paris seemed to be moving towards the cathedral, I cut short my lunch, and reached the Parvis a little after one. Never have I seen such a gathering. Worshipers coming by the thousands blocked every street. The cathedral, beyond the sea of human heads, seemed very far away. It took me half an hour to work my way forward to the doors. Arriving at the iron fence, I found the gates closed. It did not need the assurances of the police on guard to tell me that there was no hope of entering. Inside the gates, under the porches, thousands were crowded. The three massive doors were wide open. But those so near were yet as far away as myself.
Long experience has taught me that when the front door is closed, there is always a side door, and, failing that, a back door. I had come to see the ceremony. It took twenty minutes to work my way back to the nearest breathing space, by the statue of Charlemagne. Then I tried for the side door, leading into the yard between the cathedral and the archevêché. This was worse than the front. Instead of getting forward, I was gradually pushed sidewise, until I found myself seated on the parapet of the quay, looking down into the Seine, and wishing for a swim. The back door alone remained.
Around by the side of the archbishop’s residence is an iron gate servants’ entrance, I suppose. Here there were few people for the moment, and those that entered were priests of the city, who had been quietly given the tip. I got in among them, but, when I reached the gate, a policeman loomed up in front of me or rather, I loomed up in front of a policeman. For I am not small.
“You,” he said, in a tired voice, “are the seventy-fifth thousandth person who has, since noon, thought of this dodge and compelled me to be rude. Stand back, please, and let their reverences pass !”
“Surely,” I responded, “there ought to be a premium for number seventy-five thousand and one. And it will relieve your tired feeling to pass me injust for the sake of a change.”
“You are right,” he exclaimed, letting fall the arm that barried the way. “Go in, but I warn you that, once inside, you are still far from the cathedral.”
A narrow stone staircase, leading from the court of the archevêché, is the entrance to the sacristy. Here, to my astonishment, among the priests jostling each other in an effort to enter, I saw several hundred other outsiders like myself. Making a passage for several nuns enabled me to get to the steps, where a soldier of the Twenty-second was standing guard.
“I am sorry for every one here,” he said to me. “I would let all in, but there is no room; the cathedral is full.”
“What a pity,” I answered. “You are not in your first year in the Twenty-second, are you?”
This question seemed to surprise him. For there was a query in his voice when he admitted that his term of service was just about up.
“It ‘s such a shame,” I remarked, “that your regiment should not be at the front. I remember last year what a wonderful showing you made at Long-champs on the Quatorze. Isn’t it tough that you have to be here keeping order in Paris? Such a wonderful regiment as yours !”
His face glowed with pride. “So you noticed our regiment then? We did do credit to ourselves in that review, If you wait, I ‘ll just step inside, and see if there is one more place.”
So I got into Notre Dame.
From the sacristy door to the choir there was an open space, preserved with difficulty for the passage of the privileged ones admitted to the choir. Naturally, coming from the sacristy, I was privileged, was I not? I reached a position not far from the altar, where I could look straight down through the choir and nave to the open doors. As far as the eye reached, up to the prefecture of police on the other side of the great square in front of the cathedral, the worshipers were massed. If ever Notre Dame held more people in all its centuries of history, either the cathedral was larger or men were smaller in other ages than in our own.
On his throne sat Cardinal Amette in brilliant red robes. The stalls were filled with the clergy of Paris. Hundreds of chairs, placed in the choir, were occupied by high officials of the government and the city, and by officers and soldiers of every branch of the service. Most of them had bandaged arms or heads. Only invalid soldiers had time to pray today.
After the evening service had been sung, the great congregation was invited by the cardinal to sing the hymn, “Sauvez la France !” Far out into the place it was taken up by a hundred thousand throats. Priests and laymen were crying all around me. They were not ashamed of their tears. Nor was I of mine. There was something sublime in that cry, “Sauvez la France!”
From the steps of the choir, standing on a high dais erected for the occasion, Cardinal Amette preached a simple, earnest sermon. His theme was that no country could prosper without the blessing of God, and that the supplications of the faithful were absolutely necessary for the success of the armies in the field. He ended his peroration by lifting his arms, and crying, “God with us ! Vive l’Eglise! Vive la France!” The cry was taken up, echoed and reechoed, and then the vast audience burst again spontaneously into the hymn, “God save France !”
The relics and treasures of Notre Dame and of other historic churches of Paris were paraded down the nave, out through the crowd on the place, and back to the choir. Among them were many reminders of the country’s history and traditions, relics of King Clovis, St. Geneviève, and Jeanne d’Arc. They were carried by soldiers, and followed by a number of guilds with their banners. During the procession, the patron saints of the city and the nation were invoked. Like the soughing of pines came the responses, “Miserere nobis” and “Ora pro nobis.”
It was six o’clock before I got out into the open air. A victory was being cried by the newsboys. “The Germans retreat!” “General Joffre sends a message from the army!”
But there was no exultation among the departing worshipers. For news of success could not brighten the faces of those who, during the hours of prayer, had been thinking of loved ones out on the battlefields of the Marne. Before their eyes was not the victory, but the price that had been paid. How many were widows and orphans, but knew it not !