Like many today, I had a hard time taking my eyes away from the television images coming from Paris. The incredible Cathedral of Notre Dame was being destroyed by a raging fire. I was flooded with sadness over such a loss, but also grateful that I had the chance to experience this glorious and majestic place of worship. Started in 1163, this cathedral was meant to glorify God, and so it has for over 800 years. Many years ago, I was talking with a priest friend who was living in Rome at the time. We were talking about St. Peter’s Basilica, and he shared a thought. Even though the building is a magnificent work of architecture and art, it was built for one purpose: The celebration of Mass. It was built with one goal in mind: To glorify God. The same can be said for Notre Dame.
I was only in Paris once, in the mid 80’s, me a college student with a friend studying in Germany. We planned such a grand tour that some of my family wanted to come. We were together in Rome for Christmas, and then my friend and I headed to Switzerland, while my family went… I can’t remember! I’ll have to check with them on that. Anyway, our plan was to be together again in Paris for New Year’s. I know, what a life.
On December 31st, my friend and I arrived in Paris and checked into our hotel. I asked the attendant if my family had arrived, and he checked the registration book. Desk top computers were still several years away, and no one had cell phones. “There’s no other reservation for someone named Gallagher.” I told him that was impossible, so he checked again, then gave me the book to see for myself. I knew there must be a mistake, so when I got to my room, I made some calls back home. First, I tried the travel agent who made all our reservations, but being New Year’s Eve, they were closed. Next, I was able to reach one of my brothers, but he only had the itinerary, not the list of our hotels. I was in Paris, I guessed my family was in Paris, but the travel agent booked us in different hotels, and we didn’t know where the other was staying.
To say I was upset was an understatement. My traveling companion recommended we go out to dinner and do our best to celebrate New Year’s in the City of Lights. Yes, the food and wine were great, but I really missed not being with my family. I’m sure I wasn’t the most fun person to be with that night, but my friend understood. We walked around the streets, happy to be in Paris to bring in the New Year, but eventually we went back to the hotel room in somber moods.
I woke up early the next morning with an idea. Since New Year’s Day is a Holy Day for Catholics, I knew for sure my mom would go to Mass. When I told this to my non Catholic friend, he was indifferent. “Paul, we saw tons of churches since we’ve been in Paris. How would you know which one she would go to?” “Notre Dame,” I replied. “I’m sure she would go to Notre Dame.” After breakfast, we headed out to find the Cathedral, which from our hotel, was no easy trip. As I recall, we got lost a few times before eventually making it to our destination.
When we arrived, Mass had already begun, and the Cathedral was packed. I learned later that the church held over 9,000 people, and let me tell you, there was probably 9,500 there that morning. My friend asked how I would ever find my family in such a crowd. “Come with me,” I said, and off we went.
You see, my mom was a creature of habit. In those days, she tended to sit in the same area of the church, regardless of what church she was in. Hoping beyond hope, and silently praying, off we went, making our way to the left aisle of this huge cathedral. About half way up, just where I thought I would, I found my family. If I were to talk with my friend today, I would guess that he would say he was still shocked that I was able to find them so easily. Maybe St. Mary was guiding me, answering my prayers, but I can’t say for certain. All I know is that in a vast cathedral, filled with many thousands of people, I walked right up to my mom like it was all planned, and we reunited for one of the best New Year Days I have ever had.
After Mass, we had the chance to walk around and tour the Cathedral. I will always remember those beautiful rose windows, with the glorious richness of the light shining through the blue glass. Today, I texted with my sister and brother who were with me that day, and we all mentioned the rose windows, lost forever now.
After walking inside for awhile, my buddy and I walked up the spiral staircase, all 387 steps. Only my trip up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty was more, well, thrilling would be the wrong word, but anyway, when we eventually made it to the up and outside, my friend took this photo of me. The image has faded with time, but my memory of that day hasn’t. I call it my “miracle of Notre Dame,” and I’m still amazed at the blessings which came to me that New Year’s Day in 1987, a lifetime ago now.
For those people who have lost their beloved Cathedral, where generations have been baptized, married, received Eucharist and reconciliation, been buried from, and where millions have come to pray in this place built to glorify God, I am so sorry for your loss. Our faith is bigger than buildings, though, even the most ancient and glorious of them. As the prophet Jerimiah reminds us, when we seek the Lord with all our hearts, we will find Him. St. Ignatius would remind us that we can find God in all things, and I would add all places. The loss of Notre Dame is a great one, but God was not lost at the same time the fire destroyed the building. Just look around.