More than 400 firefighters answered the call when fire broke out in the Notre Dame Cathedral this Holy Week. As Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Plus, spokesperson for the Paris firefighters, told the Agence France Press, “One doesn’t imagine as a Paris firefighter one day intervening to save Notre Dame!”
“Time worked against us,” he said. “The wind was against us, and we needed to retake control.”
Father Jean-Marc Fournier, a fire department chaplain on the scene, told the New York Times, “Artworks can be reproduced, while a human life can’t.” But firefighters risked their lives to save the art and relics that have been kept in Notre Dame in a kind of trust for the world.
Father Fournier helped lead a group to the locked chest that held the Crown of Thorns said to have been worn by Jesus. While Father Fournier searched for the keys to the chest, firefighters resorted to blunt force and broke it open. A human chain of emergency workers delivered to crown to safety.
Plus said, “There is so much emotion and a little satisfaction to have been able to save what we were able to.”
Every inch of France is mapped from the center of Notre Dame. People tell time by the toll of its bells. The cathedral has been the scene of royal coronations and the crowning of cardinals, while its grounds are the setting for protests, concerts, picnics, painters, pickup soccer games and countless strolls by families, tourists and lovers.
After all these centuries, Notre Dame is still a working church. It hums with masses, baptisms, communions and millions of murmured, silent, everyday prayers, uttered over flickering vigil candles.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, told firefighters when they received the nation’s Medal of Honor yesterday, “You risked your lives to save what is a part of all of us.”
Billionaires, corporations and ordinary citizens immediately pledged a billion dollars to rebuild Notre Dame. Their efforts may have encouraged more than two million dollars in contributions to an American campaign to rebuild the three African American Baptist churches set aflame in Louisiana.
Holy Week may be exactly the time to wonder how the world can find so much so quickly to rebuild an extraordinary house of faith, while so many people in the world are left to struggle with so little, in refugee camps and shattered cities.
But the fortitude of Paris firefighters can remind us, as much as the cathedral itself, of the majesty of human effort. The most magnificent edifices can be fragile. Courage, kindness and faith endure.