One year after the devastating blaze that destroyed the roof and spire of the emblematic Parisian cathedral on the first day of Holy Week, the Catholic faithful of France and elsewhere were faced with a new trial they could never have imagined back then: the suspension of all public Masses until further notice, and, above all, the cancellation of Easter celebrations, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Such a concordance of time frames gives food for thought, according to the man who was in the front line of the tragedy that befell Notre Dame a year ago, Father Jean-Marc Fournier.
As the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, Father Fournier became a worldwide symbol of courage after risking his life to save the Blessed Sacrament and the holy relics of the Passion while flames were devouring the medieval cathedral.
He was recently appointed director of the International Military Pilgrimage in Lourdes, as well as dean of the chapter of the Cathedral of St. Louis des Invalides in Paris, which is the cathedral of the Diocese of the French Armed Forces.
In this interview with the Register, Father Fournier shares his reflections about the deep spiritual significance of the series of crisis striking the West and provides keys to better dealing with the unprecedented challenges facing the Catholic faithful.
What would you say to those who are suffering from the lack of Holy Communion during the lockdown period and don’t find consolation in live broadcast Masses?
What makes the Church is the Body of Christ, but we can materially be deprived of it totally, as it happened many times in history. It was the case, for instance, of countless Japanese Catholics for over two centuries, as they were deprived of priests. It is necessary to hold on to the three presences of God: his immensity, grace and the Real Presence.
And we still have grace, as we became children of God through our baptism, and we believe that God is present inside us. So, when we think about these three presences, we understand that we are not completely abandoned by the Divine — far from it.
What are your personal reflections about this lockdown period?
I’ll let the civil world judge whether the crisis was well managed or not. As a man of God, I’ll point out the fact that, once again, this crisis burst during the Lent period, and we cannot but connect it to the Notre Dame fire, as it happened pretty much at the same time one year ago. There is definitely something prophetic with this situation.
Catholic doctrine teaches us to be aware of the Real Presence, but many people take it for granted or don’t really value it. But in troubled times like these, the only thing that truly endures is the divine dimension, not what was built by human beings. If you stop relying on your own will and on the confidence you have in your own strengths, the more you abandon yourself to God’s action, the more you can progress on the path of the reconfiguration of his image inside us.
In our last interview one year ago, you highlighted the crucial dimension of the Real Presence after saving the Holy Sacrament from the burning cathedral. As recent polls showed that only 31% of the Catholics believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, do you think that this long period of time without Holy Communion can also awake consciences?
The Eucharist was brought back to the fore after the blaze at Notre Dame because we almost lost it, and now we are deprived of it, and it is exactly now that we rediscover even more profoundly the importance and power of Christ’s presence, which must be at the center of our lives.
But, sadly, such a state of mind among believers is comparable to that of bishops who say that priests should stop celebrating Mass online and putting themselves forward during the quarantine, as it is an ugly sign of clericalism and because the Christian faith is something different. Such a mentality is everywhere now. I notice a kind of protestantization of minds in some parts of the Church, and these people are also taking advantage of this situation to promote a different vision of the faith.
All of this is regrettable because, at the same time, a lot of people are becoming aware of the value of the Catholic heritage in many nations.
So you do think that, somehow, these tragic events made such attitudes evolve over the past year?
I definitely witnessed a renewed interest for the religious dimension within the population. It is obvious to me, first of all because the fire led people to speak about the Church and, this time, not simply because of sex scandals. And they understood that the Catholic presence in the country was not to be taken for granted.
I think many people are realizing the value of life. The cathedral that we thought was eternal burnt in a few minutes; and now, while transhumanist medicine promised that one day we would be able to live 200 years, we are dying miserably because of a microscopic and invisible enemy.
There is another phenomenon emerging from this COVID-19 pandemic which will have a long-term impact, and it is the involvement of the clergy in the crisis. More than 100 priests have died in Italy so far, while about 40 priests died in France. These clergymen died heroically, while trying to accompany the faithful in their trial, in the name of a superior principle, that is the love of God. It is the same feeling that guided me and the firefighters through the cathedral during the blaze to save the Blessed Sacrament and the holy relics of the Passion. Such a behavior, which is — as I often say, quoting St. Paul — “nonsense for Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23), has necessarily an impact on those who witness it.
How do you personally live the first anniversary of Notre Dame fire?
I can’t help but think that we’re no closer to going back inside the cathedral, as the restoration work came to a halt precisely one year after the blaze because of another deep crisis which is having a worldwide impact, just like the fire. I find it troubling.
When thinking about Notre Dame, what is the image that most makes its mark in your mind?
Stunningly, it is not the fire itself, but, rather, the Mass that was celebrated inside the cathedral a month later by Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris and in which I took part with a dozen priests. Obviously, Mass was sung a cappella; it was all very simple. It was a kind of renewed medieval simplicity, which fit perfectly the cathedral. It really struck and touched me. It is an image that still inhabits me today.
It seems, after all, that one of the first consequences of the blaze was to favor a return to the original roots of the faith.
Exactly. Just like gold is passed through the crucible to burn impurities, fire had the effect to rid us of every dross that was accumulated for a number of years in our celebrations, and we were suddenly put at the core the mystery of Christ — who dies and rises — in a liturgical and sacramental manner on the altar.
Who are the saints you turn to the most in these troubled times?
My two favorite saints are St. Barbara, who is the patroness of firemen, and, of course, Our Lady of Paris. At the beginning of the pandemic, I placed my brigade as well as their families and all the people and staff involved in the crisis under the protection of the Virgin Mary, especially Our Lady of Paris.
I wrote a special novena prayer (see below) to her at the beginning of the crisis, drawing inspiration from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and I put it at the disposal of all the faithful.
Every Thursday for the last three weeks, I have been before the famous statue of the Virgin and Child — which was also miraculously saved during the fire and brought to the nearby Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois — to say the act of entrustment to Our Lady. The first time, I went there with my firefighters’ brigade, which made this moment even more solemn.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.
“Prayer to Our Lady” by Father Jean-Marc Fournier
Remember, O most merciful Virgin Mary,
that we’ve never heard that any of those
who have sought your protection,
implored your assistance and asked for your intercession, has been abandoned.
With this confidence, we run to you.
O Virgin of virgins, O Mother,
protect your children, the Paris Fire Department,
their families and everyone they love.
Give us your support and defend us in these calamities,
not on our own merits, that we cannot overestimate,
but only because of the immense goodness of your mother's heart.
May you be touched by the pain and anxiety of fathers and mothers,
of innocent husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and children.
We also pray for all those who are struggling
in order to bring relief to the victims, the nursing staff,
our brothers-in-arms from other army units,
ground forces, navy, air forces, gendarmerie
and all the actors of civil life.
O Mother of the Incarnate Word, do not despise our prayers,
but listen to them favorably, and deign to hear them out.