PARIS - A procession of clergy dressed in white carried a simple black cross through the streets of Île St. Louis on Friday, continuing a Good Friday ritual even while the charred hulk of Notre Dame Cathedral loomed behind them.
Thousands of Parisians and visitors gathered for the "stations of the cross" devotion, a symbolic re-enactment of Christ's passion that commemorates the trajectory from his sentencing to his burial in 14 stops.
Timi Patea, 21, one of the young seminary students guiding the crowd, said this year's service was especially important "to show that Notre Dame is still standing."
The cathedral was visible in the background, across a short foot bridge, on the neighboring Île de la Cité. Because its nineteenth-century spire and much of its roof were consumed in Monday's fire, its flying buttresses now seem to climb to nowhere. But the main structure, the iconic twin bell towers and the stunning stained-glass rose windows remain intact. And most of the art and artifacts survived.
Some media reports had suggested that Friday's procession would include one of the treasured relics saved from the burning cathedral: a crown of thorns said to be the one Jesus wore during his crucifixion. But the Archdiocese of Paris said that, for security reasons, the relic was left in safekeeping at Paris City Hall.
Notre Dame will be closed for five to six years, church authorities have said. Crews must assess the damage and stabilize the structure before rebuilding can begin.
Investigators still privilege the view that the fire was an accident. French media outlets have cited unnamed police officials saying that an electrical short-circuit is the leading hypothesis. But a judicial official from the office of the Paris prosecutor, the body overseeing the investigation, told The Washington Post that "no hypothesis is excluded at this stage."
Paris's Catholic community has been determined to carry on with Holy Week celebrations without the cathedral that marks the heart of the city. Easter Masses that were supposed to take place at Notre Dame have been moved to the nearby Church of Saint Eustache.
"A cathedral is a place of passage," said Stéphane Lemessin, a French priest who blogs on church-related issues. "One has the desire to look up, to regard the heavens. We will have to find other places to regard the heavens now."
Notre Dame Cathedral, of course, is not just a place of worship. It is also a symbol of Paris, the most-visited site in one of the world's most-visited cities and an inspiration for countless artists, writers and poets.
"Tourists visit it more than the faithful do," said Frédéric Martel, a French journalist.
"The collapse of Notre Dame in the literal sense is a sad metaphorfor the collapse of French Catholicism in the figurative sense," said Martel, whose recent book examines the question of closeted homosexuality within the Vatican. "Devastated by scandals, inflamed by polemics, French Catholicism is bankrupt."
But some, including Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, see rebuilding Notre Dame as an opportunity for the Catholic Church to transcend the scandals that have eroded public trust.
"The only thing I'm sure of is that God always gets good from evil," Aupetit said in a Friday interview with La Croix, a French Catholic newspaper.
"At the foot of the cross, when everything was over, someone was standing: it was Notre Dame," he said, referring to the Virgin Mary, the namesake of the cathedral, who was present for her son's crucifixion. "And on the third day, Christ is risen. From the death of his son, God brought for the good: his resurrection and the salvation of all men."
Both France's Catholic roots and its secularism were visible in the shadow of Notre Dame on Friday.
Some of those who observed the stations of the cross procession mouthed the words to hymns they knew by heart.
But nearby, the "bouquinistes," the booksellers that line the banks of the Seine, were propped in their folding chairs, checking their iPhones and waiting for customers. Because the weather was finally warm, young people were sunbathing on the riverbank. Some gazed up in curiousity as Latin incantations boomed from the loudspeakers.