As the whole world watched the photos and videos of Notre Dame burning April 15, Father Jean-Marc Fournier’s face became indelibly associated with the terrible fire on the first day of Holy Week.
It is an image of heroism and hope imprinted in the minds of millions of people, thanks to the courage this French priest showed in taking part in the rescue of the Blessed Sacrament, the Crown of Thorns and the Tunic of St. Louis, and guiding firefighters through chapels and corridors, while the flames had already consumed a significant part of the cathedral.
Born in 1966, Father Fournier was ordained a priest in 1994 and joined the French Forces in Afghanistan in the 2000s. There, he lost 10 comrades during the Uzbin Valley Ambush in 2008. In 2011, he went back to France, where he joined the Paris Fire Brigade as their chaplain.
In 2015, he was called in to the scenes of three terrible terror attacks that occurred in Paris that year: the shooting at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, followed by the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege, and, on Nov. 13 of the same year, he took part in the evacuation of the wounded of the Bataclan theater attack — even as the shooting was occurring. During the event, he was seen praying before the victims’ bodies and offering a collective absolution to the wounded.
In an interview with the Register in Paris, Father Fournier talked about his mission with disaster victims, his frequent contact with pain and death, and about how his faith has given him the strength to deal with the most difficult situations.
You helped save the holy relics of the Passion and the Blessed Sacrament, at great risk to yourself. How would you explain such a gesture to the many people for whom the faith means little nowadays in Western countries?
You have been besieged by the world’s media since the blaze. How did you manage such a surging popularity?
We could say that you are pretty familiar with troubled times. You’ve been called in to the scenes of three of the major terror attacks of Paris in 2015. Before this, you were in Afghanistan during the Uzbin Valley Ambush in 2008. What was your concrete role in all these tragedies?
How do you find the strength to always carry on?
I just feel I am a pilgrim on this earth. I remember this sentence from St. Paul: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4). We know that all of our surrounding world is only transitory — we move toward eternity. But we won’t have eternity on this earth. If doctors, caregivers and all those who must deal with difficult situations are said to be able to steel themselves against pain over time, it is not the case for priests at all. We are never able to break away from this pain.
We live in a real empathy and compassion with people. We have this real opportunity to live [the] Incarnation, and to this extent, Our Lord invites us to cry with the one who cries, to laugh with the one who laughs. With the phenomenon of death, we live two separate things. We mourn the loss of a loved one, just like Christ did with his friend Lazarus; but at the same time, we celebrate the joy of entering hope. Very often, to be a Catholic is to gather two opposite things at the same time — that is, to solve apparent paradoxes that are irreducible for most of our peers. For someone who doesn’t have faith, all of those things are totally incomprehensible.
But have you noticed that somehow your presence among the victims had an impact on people, especially on unbelievers?
What I see is that, in a retrospective way, when we read the Gospel, we understand that the word of God is like a devouring fire which runs through the earth in an instant. There have been a high number of churches that have been burning since the beginning of the year, so I asked myself why, all of a sudden, beyond the Crown of Thorns, the news of the Notre Dame fire spread all around the world, just like with French Col. Arnaud Beltrame [the courageous Catholic who was killed after having exchanged himself for a hostage during a terrorist attack in Trèbes in 2018].
In our societies, that are considerably marked by atheist materialism and death cultures, people need to perceive something beautiful, something that can re-enchant their everyday life ... to realize that, somehow, sacrifice is still possible, that one is ready to put oneself in jeopardy for something that doesn’t seem to have any interest [for that person], something that is, as St. Paul would say, “nonsense for Gentiles, an offense for the Jews” (1 Corinthians 1:23), gives rise to personal questionings.
There is a deep aspiration nowadays. For so many years, humanity in its huge majority has been maintained in a state of chronic spiritual undernourishment. Think about Jesus: He started healing bodies and then the souls. When I went to the Bataclan theater, for instance, I started with one hour of first aid with the victims. I took all the necessary [training] to join the firefighters. After taking care of the bodies, I could start helping [survivors make] sense of the things around them.
The whole world was ablaze with solidarity as Notre Dame was burning. Is it because people feel it embodies more than a cultural heritage?
I could just make reference to the beautiful Easter homily of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. He said it was necessary to save the cathedral, which was built with an incredible architectural genius, and it was necessary to save the treasure as well, because it is the fruit of both fabulous artisans and faith. He said it was necessary to save the Crown of Thorns, but that all of this makes sense only if it is related to the Real Presence. Without it, all of this is complete nonsense.
So the cathedral must be seen according to two different levels: the natural order, which appears ex nihilo, and which is called to be deeply transformed over time; and then you have a supernatural order, with grace in the first place and then glory. These two levels are complementary, but they don’t have the same nature.
But through this event, I noticed a universal desire to see life triumph over death. It also explains the phenomenon of transhumanism, which expresses a desire of humanity to overcome death. Some natural means are being developed precisely because people no longer have access to supernatural means, because they refuse [these means] or because no one ever gave them the possibility to know them.
What do you expect for the future of Notre Dame?
Concretely, I expect a renewal of the cathedral — not simply through the architectural contest that was launched by the [French] government! We need to keep in mind that Notre Dame is a cathedral, and this is a place of worship. In this sense, the archbishop of Paris is right in saying he is willing to go back to celebrate Mass in the cathedral as soon as possible, since the lateral chapels are accessible. I insist once again on the fact that all of this makes sense because of the Real Presence of Our Lord within the monument. Since we understand that, I see no problem in the fact that aesthetes from all around the world admire the cathedral’s architecture. But let’s not forget that religious art is a way to lead us to the Truth. Beauty is an educational way that leads to the Truth, to God.
Many Catholics are worried about the evolution of the rebuilding of the cathedral, as the French government announced “a contemporary architectural gesture.” Do you share such concern?
… Let’s put [questions of architecture] in the hands of God!
What would you say to all those who expressed their indignation about the huge amounts of money that came from all over the world to rebuild Notre Dame, saying it would have been better to give it to the poor?
I refer them to what Jesus said when Judas was surprised that a very expensive lavender perfume was thrown on his feet. He said: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). The Evangelist said that … because the devil had already seized [Judas’] heart, as he was a thief already: He was stealing from the till. We should question the purity of intentions of those who make such comments. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that such remarks are [altogether impertinent]. Let’s take an example.
From the 10th century, right after the Iron Age, France covered herself with a white mantle thanks to Christianity — churches and cathedrals were built all over the country. However, there were a lot more poor people than today. There was no social protection or anything else like that at that time. Huge amounts of money were invested in these buildings. But it didn’t cost much to the state, as there were mainly private donations, as is the case today with Notre Dame. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that before the Church of France was dispossessed [with the fall of the French monarchy] in 1792 and then [again] in 1905 [when the French government passed the Separation of Church and State Law], she used to maintain her heritage by herself.
And, eventually, all of the money that is dedicated to the church building does serve the poor, for two reasons. First of all, because one is poor doesn’t mean one cannot have access to beauty, to things that edify and make the soul flourish. What poor people couldn’t afford to buy for their homes, they can have access to [in] a church.
The second thing we must keep in mind is that the Church has always taken care of the poor over the centuries. Beautiful churches were built, but Christianity also built L’Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, a place where the poorest could be taken care of.
The problem is that, today, the state took possession of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, as well as the care of the poor, [both of] which used to be the prerogative of the Church. It causes confusion nowadays.
How did the image of the luminous cross standing among the wreckage the day after the blaze inspire you?
The whole world noticed the cross and was struck by it. It reminds me of the victory of the Battle of Tolbiac, in 506, when a cross appeared in the sky. Just like in the Scriptures, there is a common historic sense, and then there are other deep spiritual senses that one needs to identify.
Solène Tadié is the Europe correspondent for the Register.