CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
On Monday, April 15, the world watched in horror as a fast-moving blaze threatened to consume the very heart of French Catholicism — the Notre-Dame de Paris, arguably the most iconic medieval structure in Europe.
For Catholics, the grief was compounded by the knowledge that the ancient cathedral is home not only to the Blessed Sacrament but to priceless relics, including the crown of thorns.
It was, in the words of the French-born Canon Benoit Jayr of St. Stanislaus Oratory in Milwaukee, an “unanticipated Golgotha” at the very dawn of Holy Week.
“France is wounded in her heart, in her flesh,” said Canon Jayr, who is intimately acquainted with the cathedral from his time as the pastor about 30 minutes away from the Notre-Dame. “I am still in shock and horror.”
New Berlin residents Erin and Tim Pann were enjoying the last day of their vacation to northern France, emerging from a Parisian shop just after 7 p.m. when they saw smoke pouring out of the spire of the Notre-Dame. “It was kind of a whitish/yellowish smoke, and of course, the sirens were everywhere,” said Erin, a parishioner at St. Mary in Hales Corners and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. “We walked halfway down the block and you could see the fire. Something was obviously going on. Traffic was at a standstill; the sidewalks were full of people standing there watching.”
The Panns lingered for several hours watching as the fire tore through the wooden roof of the Gothic cathedral, which sits on the Île de la Cité in the Seine River, at the center of the city.
“It felt unreal,” she said. “It still does. There were some people crying — it was very hard to watch.”
Eventually, the flames overtook the spire and it collapsed. “You could tell that it was coming,” said Pann. “You could hear the whole crowd cry out. That was very emotional. That moment definitely got me.”
Back in Milwaukee, watching the televised images of the flames engulfing the roof of the cathedral, it was also a struggle for Fr. Rob Kroll, S.J., to hold back tears. Fr. Kroll, who is the director of spiritual formation at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, lived in Paris from 1990-93 prior to his ordination, while pursuing philosophical and theological studies.
“It was just such a point of gathering and of faith — it really is the home of French Catholicism,” said Fr. Kroll, who, while living in Paris, visited the Cathedral often to attend Mass or simply to pray. “I remember thinking to myself that not only are we connecting over the ages — (with Catholics) over all these centuries who have come here to pray — but even while I was there in that church in the early 90s, with me were people from literally all over the world — it was sort of a microcosm of the universal church gathered together.”
Canon Jayr said he was alerted to the fire by a parishioner who knocked on the door of the St. Stanislaus sacristy after noon Mass, he said. He was initially unaware of the full extent of the damage, noting that acts of vandalism against Catholic cemeteries and churches are increasingly common recently.
Viewing the carnage was like watching “a family member collapse in front of you, and you don’t know what to do,” he said.
“Yesterday night, the people in Paris and everywhere in the world were like assisting a dying person,” he said. “And today, I have received many messages of condolence, as if the Cathedral of Notre-Dame were a real human person.”
In light of the scandals and crises that have plagued the Universal Church over the last year, it was difficult not to despair, said Fr. Kroll. “I know this is overdramatizing, but I felt like it was almost God’s judgment on everything that’s going on in the Church right now,” he said. “As we know, the Church in Western Europe and France, in particular, is really suffering. Just as the cathedral is going up in flames, the Church in Western Europe is disappearing.”
But ultimately, he said, this tragedy is “an invitation to put our trust in God alone.”
“As wonderful as this church is, like anything that’s man-made, it is not eternal,” he said. “Ultimately, everything we create, even something that lasts almost a millennium, at some point it’s going to be reduced to rubble, to dust.”
He added that he was heartened by the images of the interior of the cathedral that emerged in the days following the fire, showing much of it intact, including a large gold cross in the sanctuary. “It reminds me even in the midst of this disaster there’s always hope. God isn’t abandoning us.”
Canon Jayr said that he has faith that God is using this tragedy to bring about a transformation in French culture. “Today, France is mourning, and it’s interesting because suddenly the Catholic Church in France is respected again. Priests are invited to speak on the TV, people pray the rosary in the streets of Paris,” he said. “Maybe it’s time for the Catholics of France to stop hiding, to stop being ashamed to be who they are.”
“Notre Dame is just such a symbol of (the city),” said Pann, who honeymooned in Paris and has visited the city five times. “My husband and I were talking later that day — is it that it belongs to Paris, the city I really love, or is it that it’s such a beautiful Catholic symbol, that it belongs to the whole world and to a community that we’re a part of? It’s very hard to explain why you feel so attached to a building and why you feel partial ownership of it.”
Lezlie Knox, an associate professor at Marquette University who specializes in medieval history, said that the Notre Dame — constructed mainly over a period of 100 years — was a triumph of architectural achievement — “a massive commitment of labor and culture” that would have loomed large over medieval Paris.
“Most people would not have gone to Notre- Dame on any sort of regular basis, in the same way that in Milwaukee today most Catholics don’t go to the Cathedral on a regular basis,” she said. “But it would have loomed over the city — think about medieval buildings, one and two stories high — we have some wonderful manuscripts showing just how big (Notre-Dame) was (in comparison).”
As parishioners of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, said Pann, it was especially affecting to watch the fire destroy another cathedral. “It’s not just a building. It’s so much more than that. It’s tradition and it’s beauty and it’s architecture and it’s part of a community,” she said.
Notre Dame was — and is — a representation of France’s “Catholic family tree,” said Canon Jayr.
“A church is a sign of God’s presence in the world, God’s presence among men, but maybe we do not know that enough. Such a fire, such a catastrophe, is maybe like an alarm clock to remind us that without our churches, without our cathedrals, the world will be gloomy,” said Canon Jayr. “Maybe we have to relearn that without the bell towers of our churches in Paris and everywhere in the world, the world is not human.”