It has been over two months since the tragic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The two months have brought with them a great deal of understanding of the Cathedral, it's art and its place in history which are all irreplaceable. The Cathedral is a reminder of the pinnacle of God's creation which is the human person capable of raising the human mind and heart into the contemplation of God's beauty through artistic creativity and manual dexterity. The two months have also brought a great deal of hope in the conviction of rebuilding the Cathedral as a monument to God and His creation.
One of the most profound incidents surrounding the fire at the Cathedral was the action of Father Jean-Marc Fournier, a French priest and chaplain to the Paris Fire Department. He was on duty on the day of the fire and summoned to the burning Cathedral. As he arrived and saw the searing flames, he immediately entered the flame engulfed building in order to save the treasures of Notre Dame. He managed to save the relic of the Crown of Thorns which was enshrined at the Cathedral. This was not a safe and easy task. However, in doing so, his first inclination was to ensure the safety of the Blessed Sacrament. Father Fournier stated in an interview, "Everybody understands that the Crown of Thorns is an absolutely unique and extraordinary relic, but the Blessed Sacrament is our Lord, really present in His body, soul, divinity and humanity and you understand that it is hard to see someone you love perish in the blaze. As firefighters we often see casualties from fire and we know its effects, this is why I sought to preserve the real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The priest chaplain’s strong faith in the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist is testimony to the tremendous treasure that we possess in the Blessed Sacrament. His courageous and successful efforts to save the Blessed Sacrament during the raging fire reminds us of what is the center of our faith in the Lord's giving of Himself to us in a manner in which He took our humanity to Himself and left us the gift of His Body and Blood to be eaten and adored in the Eucharist so we might share in His divinity. As Father Fournier escaped the Cathedral with the Blessed Sacrament, he took the opportunity to bless the burning building with it. As he said in the interview, "And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. Here I am completely alone in the Cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home."
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord following the Easter season, it is well for all of us to reflect upon the great gift of the Eucharist as well as our appreciation of it. The Solemnity reminds us that the Lord is truly with us in this great gift and we must be careful never to take it for granted, especially by not appreciating the mystery that it is. There is a danger in our culture today to underemphasize the awesome reality that the Eucharist is which sometimes leads to a lack of understanding and appreciation for it.
In his recent essay on the current situation within the Church, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI emphasizes how "The Second Vatican Council was rightly focused on returning this sacrament of the Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the Presence of His Person, of His Passion, Death and Resurrection, to the center of Christian life and the very existence of the Church. In part, this really has come about, and we should be most grateful to the Lord for it." However, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI also notes that "a rather different attitude is prevalent. What predominates is not a new reverence for the Presence of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence.”
Pope Francis speaks and teaches frequently on the great gift which is the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He has given several Wednesday audiences on this teaching and has devoted daily homilies to it as well as speaking to groups in this regard. The Pope’s tremendous love and reverence for the Eucharist is well summed up in his following words at a general audience on the Eucharist in February 2014: "Dear friends, we do not ever thank the Lord enough for the gift He has given us in the Eucharist! It is a very great gift and that is why it is so important to go to Mass on Sunday. Go to Mass not just to pray, but to receive Communion, the bread that is the Body of Jesus Christ who saves us, forgives us, unites us to the Father. It is a beautiful thing to do!” He emphasized that, "the Eucharistic celebration is much more than a simple banquet: it is exactly the Memorial of Jesus’ Paschal sacrifice, the mystery at the center of salvation. ‘Memorial’ does not simply mean a remembrance, a mere memory; it means that every time we celebrate this Sacrament we participate in the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist is a summit of God’s saving action: the Lord Jesus, by becoming bread broken for us, pours upon us all of His mercy and His love, so as to renew our hearts, our lives, and our way of relating with Him and with the brethren."
In the 60s, I was very moved by an incident which a priest recounted in a homily regarding the nature of the Eucharist. He said that a man approached him for prayers and specifically asked the priest to "Remember me when you hold God in your hands." First, the priest thought the man's words were very poetic, but then realized the man was referring to the priest”s holding of the host at Mass once it had become the Body of Christ. At that time, the long-standing custom of receiving the Eucharist only on the tongue was still the practice. As a result of the changes since the Second Vatican Council, we now have the option of receiving the Eucharist in the hand. Many of the faithful have also been commissioned as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and have the great privilege of distributing the Body and Blood of the Lord at Mass and of bringing the Eucharist to the sick and infirm. All of us can truly hold God in our hands and this awesome ability reminds us of the great reality which the Eucharist is and how we must show it proper respect. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical on the Eucharist, beautifully expressed, "There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery."
Notre Dame Cathedral was a magnificent setting for the celebration of Eucharist. Its treasures, symbols and sense of mystery offered a fitting space to celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist which far transcended the beauty of the Cathedral. The action of the priest chaplain, Father Fournier, in risking his life to save the Blessed Sacrament in the burning Cathedral, speaks even more powerfully of the beauty and treasure that is the Eucharist. The greatest treasure of Notre Dame Cathedral is present in every church around the world no matter how grand or simple it may be. It is this treasure of the Blessed Sacrament which makes each church sacred. As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, may we reflect upon the awesome gift that the Lord has given to us and pay proper respect and reverence to this Sacrament of Sacraments.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 21, 2019