This homily was preached at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, April 18, 2019, at the parish church of Saint-Eugène Sainte-Cécile, Paris.
We are gathered here tonight to commemorate the last meal of our Lord with his disciples—this meal which is also that of his Easter, of his sacrificial passage to the Father. This meal in which he already manifests the greatest love with which he fills those whom he wants to make his brothers by lowering himself to wash their feet—he, their Master and Lord. This meal where he creates eleven ministers who will have to repeat the sacrifice of Good Friday in the form of the bread and wine of Holy Thursday—eleven, since Judas has gone, the symbol of so many unworthy servants throughout the history of the Church.
By commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, we are also commemorating the institution of the priesthood. On this day, liturgical tradition highlights this by bringing all the clergy together around the bishop for the blessing of the holy oils in the diocese’s mother church. St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, is the stational church of the mass In cena Domini. Every Eucharist celebrated can only be in union with the bishop because, as St. Cyprian of Carthage noted in the third century, ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia: Where the bishop is, there is the Church. And yet it was in Saint-Sulpice that the clergy of Paris found themselves last night for the Chrism Mass, rather than in Notre-Dame, since our diocese’s mother church was nothing but a smoking ruin.
Allow me to share with you some reflections born of the junction of this fire with Holy Week. This event has caused emotion beyond compare, far beyond the circles of Catholics and Parisians. This emotion was caused, of course, by the brutality of the disaster and the apocalyptic character of the fire that ravaged the roof structure, tore down the flèche, and made one expect the imminent collapse of the entire building. In contemplating the carcass of the cathedral next day from the Pont des Tournelles, I remembered that I had been ordained a priest there nearly thirty years ago.
The first thought I would like to share is this: In the 21st century, the transhumanist’s so-called “augmented” man, rich in technology of all kinds, remains ultimately small compared to the elements in their fury. It took about fifteen hours, and half a thousand firefighters, to bring this apocalyptic blaze under control. We witnessed a terrifying battle between the four cosmic elements: the stone of the vaults, the water the men were drawing from the river, and the fire, fanned by the air. It was a picture worthy of antiquity, in which the ancients would have seen the manifestation of the wrath of the gods.
The second thought that occurs to me concerns the contrast between the cathedral in flames and the tranquility of the city. Seen from the sky this contrast was striking: an immense plume of smoke rising to dizzying heights from the city’s glowing heart, while the metropolis was bathed in a soft evening light. The city seemed to continue its tranquil course while its spiritual heart was dying. The next day we could contemplate the spiritual heart of Paris burned to a cinder in the midst of a body—the city with its fine Haussmann buildings—that remained intact.
This leads to my third thought. The event suddenly brought to light the spiritual reality of our civilization, which wants to be adult and autonomous: a body the soul has gradually deserted, or rather evaporated from. As we all know, without needing to read many books, our religious buildings have been quietly emptying for at least half a century. Our churches, especially in the provinces, are no more than remnants, the half-buried vestiges of a vanished civilization. Life has deserted these sacred buildings that we do not know what to do with. The slow and continuous process does not attract attention, except that of disillusioned historians, powerless prophets, or frigid technocrats. The media holds forth at regular intervals against this terminally ill patient that never dies and who continues to inconvenience the busy heirs of postmodernity with its eccentricities, and sometimes its inadequacies.
And suddenly, the most iconic of the churches of the capital, and not only of the capital but of France and even of Europe—as the reaction showed—went up in smoke! Intense emotion was felt throughout the world. Immediately after the news broke I received grieving messages from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany, and England. You have seen the reactions of so many people: All are heartfelt. Faced with this worldwide emotion, I thought of the sack of Rome by the Vandals or the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans.
But why this emotion coming from all sources—from those furthest from the Church, and from the grandest and most religious? Why this tremor in a country, a continent even, where nine out of ten Christians have deserted our worship? Why this sincere attachment to churches that one no longer frequents except for cultural purposes, to visit and listen to concerts?
If we observe, with a ruined cathedral in the middle of a prosperous city, our true spiritual character of a postmodern neo-pagan civilization, we also observe that this same postmodern society cannot manage without the tutelary presence of the church made of stones. This is how the Catholic Church in France seems to me to provide a public service of transcendence. It inscribes with its spires and its towers a verticality which questions while simultaneously reassuring the horizontality of the agitation of the cities and the torpor of the countryside. People who do not pray have discovered that they need people beside them who do pray: The disappearance of Notre-Dame suddenly reveals a need. The world, though distant from the Church, needs the Church. It certainly sees there—with the critical detachment of which it is so proud—a mysterious power of intercession. And in a certain way, the world is not mistaken, because what do we do, throughout the whole Mass, if not pray for this world and those who compose it?
The emotion of people in the street, and perhaps also of those who claim to be the elite, is a clear sign that the Church must not be satisfied with being pushed back into the sphere of private life, and that, on the contrary, it has its proper place—sometimes like itching powder—in the sphere of the public life of nations. And this sentiment, rooted in an indissoluble history of Christianity, also means that we cannot make a clean sweep of the past. So that although at Easter, as at Christmas, the Church is accustomed to taking criticism, there has been in recent days a rebalancing that has occurred, a compassion that has manifested itself. I would like to quote a few lines that one of my colleagues, Guillaume de Menthière (a canon of Notre-Dame who teaches theology at the École Cathédrale de Paris and the Collège des Bernardins), wrote on the night of the fire:
What unanimously magnificent words the media have persistently and uninterruptedly relayed! From tourists, onlookers, journalists, politicians, ecclesiastics, aesthetes, firemen… People of all ages, from all backgrounds, from all origins, and of all beliefs ... A mysterious communion finally seemed to reign over this people of France, who in recent months have so sadly shown the world fragmentation and fractures. This unity, which a presidential message, planned for the same evening, would probably not have succeeded in renewing. Our Lady, the Holy Virgin, managed it before our stunned eyes. And what if once again it was the supernatural intervention of the Mother of God that restored to our beloved and ancient country the surge of hope?
The moment when this event occurred, at the beginning of Holy Week, is certainly a sign of Providence. We cannot remain with our sorrow—we are stimulated by holy hope. We know, by faith, that Christ entered triumphantly into Jerusalem (and let us recall the 850th anniversary of Notre-Dame celebrated so ostentatiously not long ago), that he will be put to death before rising on the third day, and that he will come in his glory to lead us into the heavenly Jerusalem of which all our churches here below are but imperfect models, however sublime they may be. In the same way we are hopeful that our cathedral, devastated by the flames, will be rebuilt and will resume its guard on the banks of the Seine near the tutelary statue of St. Geneviève, our patron.
But our hope must be more incisive. It is an entire people who must make the new Notre-Dame their home, and no longer just live in the shadow of its towers. If for fifty years life has withdrawn from our churches, it is also the fault of pastors. Canon de Menthière stressed this during his last Lenten conference, held the day before the fire. Commenting on the Gospel of Palm Sunday, he highlighted Jesus's response to the Jews who blamed his disciples: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). And he asked how many times in recent history “the stones—the stones of our churches—have shouted for Him, in place of disciples who have become voiceless.”
Charred today, those stones call us to a profound conversion, because we now know how deeply our contemporaries are attached to them. It is up to us to reveal their meaning, to invite those people to enter our churches, and to follow the hundreds of catechumens who will be baptized there at the Easter Vigil. They have to take their place as “living stones” in the spiritual building that is the Church, the body of Christ. Yes—“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2: 4-5).
By washing the feet of twelve of the faithful, I will today symbolically renew Christ’s gesture of humility, the sign of the greatest love. Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est: the revelation of the great mystery that is the fusion of the two commandments of the new and eternal Covenant—the love of God and the love of neighbor. This world, which seems so remote and hostile to us and sometimes so despicable, yet which has nevertheless shown evidence of closeness and compassion even if only for a moment, is waiting for this fraternal charity which leads to the furnace of divine charity. This task is entrusted to us: It is up to us to fulfill it, with the grace of God, and assured of the highest protection of the Virgin Mary!
Abbé Eric Iborra is the vicaire (assistant priest) of the parish church of Saint-Eugène Sainte-Cécile in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris. The church, erected in 1855, is known for its music and for its use of the traditional liturgies of the Church. Its parish priest is Canon Marc Guelfucci, a canon of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Translated from the French by a friend of the parish.