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COLUMN: Work toward a new Notre Dame

Flames that shot up from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday were met first by disbelief, then by a gloom that descended over the rest of the planet.

Notre Dame, largely erected over the course of a century more than 800 years ago, rests at the center of the City of Lights; people expect the light to linger forever. They’ve always assumed it would.

Facebook friends responded with horror or lament; everyone has a Notre Dame story or two. I’m no jet-setter, so I have one memory of the cathedral from my only trip to Paris, 11 years ago.

I attended noon Mass there on March 24, 2008, the Monday after a remarkably early Easter Sunday, with the weather clear but cold. My intention was to tour, not worship, which sounds cold in itself.

But I had only a week in Paris and a list to check off, which consisted mostly of gravesites, churches, museums and other physical landmarks. My kids will tell you: I don’t wing it on an infrequent vacation. I have lists, which I sometimes carry in a three-ring binder.

But face to face with the altar, standing in the back of the massive church, I was moved by a lone, lingering memory of Isabelle, mother of St. Joan of Arc, who walked that long aisle to confront a church tribunal about the execution of her daughter as a heretic. So what does a mother, so small in figure in so great a cathedral, think as she approaches a tribunal so august in stature? She thought about her saintly daughter, whose medal I wear around my own neck, and all the injustices done to her. Good parent, that Isabelle.

That Mass commenced within moments that day at a side altar was fortunate for me. It marked my chance for communion in a church that was no longer a sight-seeing stop, a mere tick on my list, but a chance to commune with the saints and to stand in a spot that was timeless. The saints seemed to be present.

Friends sent their own memories Monday, many on Facebook. Most precious was one from my daughter, whom I visited in Paris during her junior year. We toured Notre Dame together that day, and received the sacrament.

She sent a photo of herself Monday, taken from a Paris rooftop in autumn 2007, where she attended a party with a friend from Louisiana whose apartment backed up to the cathedral. The church, perhaps a hundred yards away, looks like it might never fall.

So I could understand why Most Rev. Curtis Guillory, bishop of Beaumont, was wistful about his own memories of Notre Dame when I called on Monday. The bishop said he couldn’t imagine visiting Paris without stopping at the cathedral. He had attended noon Mass there last September, and was always comforted by the image of the cathedral, even on the horizon, when he walked in Paris.

“It’s been through wars and revolution. It was desecrated during the French Revolution,” he said. “But every time I went there, I could see it from miles away, along the Seine River. You get that kind of awesome feeling, and feel the presence of God.”

Of course, Paris is not short on spectacular churches. My daughter and I attended Easter Vigil Mass at Sacre Couer — 31/2 hours! and wonderful — overlooking the city, and visited Sainte-Chapelle, formerly the king’s chapel. I dropped in alone for adoration at St. Etienne du Mont, near the Sorbonne, where Blaise Pascal’s remains are kept, and where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in 1997.

But to the world, Paris means Notre Dame, and, as the bishop said, it and St. Peter’s speak most to both the Catholic and the non-secular worlds.

A friend from Louisiana — he is a native of northern France — wrote movingly and with perspective Monday.

“I’m deeply saddened by the situation. However, many French cathedrals have burned, been bombed during wars, and always been rebuilt as beautiful as ever.

“Notre-Dame itself was in very bad shape after the French Revolution. The 19th-century restoration made it prettier than ever,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“On the faithful Catholic point of view, the church is made of its people, not a building, as magnificent it could be! Some photos, souvenirs!
“We’ll rebuild it, prettier than ever,” he wrote.

And so we will.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.