Two events embodying the Paschal Mystery bracketed my Easter Sunday. On April 13, my wife and I flew to Paris for Holy Week to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and her birthday. We arrived in Paris on Palm Sunday and after checking in to the Hotel Bellevue in Montmartre, we traveled to the Center of Paris, the Ile de la Cité, exiting our cab before the awesomely beautiful Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris. The 12th-century cathedral was stunning as the late afternoon light gleamed on its white stone towers, the rose window and the magnificently sculpted entryways of the West Portico. After a short walk to view the stain glass windows of La Chappelle, we returned to Notre Dame for Palm Sunday Mass.
The plaza in front of the cathedral was thronged with both tourists and Parisians. A procession led by a cross bearer, two acolytes and a priest began to move through the open plaza as the bells of the cathedral gonged in summons to worship. Reaching the portico, the priest banged on the doors and called out three times in a loud voice, “Ouvrez la porte” (“Open the door”). When the doors opened, the people as if carried by a wave, swarmed past security guards and into the hallowed, soaring inner space. Carolyn and I flowed with the wave and soon were seated in the cathedral holding the sprigs of green new growth given to us as we entered. As the Passion was read, you could hear a pin drop in the atmosphere of sacred silence, deep devotion and reverence. It was as if the people were hungering for the shelter of this sacred place. As we exited, we talked of returning on Tuesday evening for a concert there.
The following evening, we boarded a Seine River boat by the Eiffel Tower for a cruise around the Ile de la Cité that would take us past the cathedral. As we approached the Ile, a huge black cloud filled the sky and shortly after the boat captain announced we would be changing course because of a “fire at Notre Dame.” My wife and I were in a state of stunned disbelief but we could see the cathedral in the distance as the fire was engulfing its roof. Fellow passengers were receiving pictures on their phones of the fire’s devastating effects. After the boat docked, a cab driver told us that Notre Dame was “gone.” We were relieved to later find that the destruction, although extensive, had been contained.
We finally returned to the cathedral on Holy Thursday, joining other people who were mourning its wounds. As the cathedral came into view from the Place de la Michel in the noon daylight, we marveled at its resplendent beauty, and its resilience. Notre Dame had lost its spire and its roof, the tangled forest of centuries old oak, but its foundational structure was whole. It was impossible not to think of the cathedral as a symbol of redemption, for us and for our Church, during the Paschal Mystery of Holy Week.
After returning to New York City, during the Octave of Easter, I attended a reading at Book Culture on the Upper West Side, of excerpts from a recently published book, “Sacred Shelter, 13 Journeys of Homelessness and Healing, ” published by Fordham University Press and edited by Susan Greenfield, a Fordham University literature professor. The book’s contributors had participated in a 30-year-old Catholic Charities-founded program, which centers on telling one’s life story as a means toward healing. These stories recount survival and recovery from early childhood traumatic experiences of sexual abuse, abandonment and loss, domestic violence, the absence of family and societal resources, and often a drift into substance abuse and homelessness. The contributors recount their resilient journeys, invariably proclaiming the role of faith and God in their lives, and their commitment to sharing their experiences in the hope of helping others.
Like the iconic image of a wounded and enduring Notre Dame, these stories of hope, suffering and redemption brought home to me the reality of the Paschal Mystery of this Easter time, the journey through dying to life.
George Horton is director of social and community development for archdiocesan Catholic Charities.