To be in Notre Dame was to ‘feel utterly insignificant,’ N.H. Catholics say

  • Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) Michel Euler

Monitor staff
Published: 4/15/2019 6:19:07 PM

Even from thousands of miles away, Notre Dame Cathedral tethered Father Georges de Laire to France.

The Vicar for Canonical Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester was born and raised in Paris until he was 17, where the cathedral’s iconic spires serve as a constant reminder of the influence Catholicism had on French history.

Later, as an adult, de Laire got the chance to return to France and celebrate Mass as a priest. Offering Mass in the 856-year old building drenched in history and tradition was beyond humbling, he said.

“One cannot ignore the grandeur of a space or edifice like Notre Dame; the history that has taken place in these walls, all that’s been heard and seen,” he said. “To be just a little peon offering the sacrifice of Mass is to feel utterly insignificant, to be part of a whole continuum of history and faith.”

As the world watched Notre Dame burn Monday, the weight of the loss of the cathedral was inescapable, he said.

“It’s tragic, not just from a perspective of faith,” de Laire said Monday afternoon. “The building is just the building; the faith is the people who gather. But it’s tragic from a historical perspective, from a cultural perspective, from an identity perspective, from an art perspective.”

The cathedral was engulfed in flames Monday, possibly connected to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead.

People around the world watched as the building’s roof collapsed and stained glass melted until barely a shell remained. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.

For Father Benedict Guevin, a professor of theology at St. Anselm College, the cathedral served as a “home away from home” that he would visit frequently after he received his doctorate in theology in Paris 30 years ago.

“The Mass was beautiful, with a very international congregation,” he said. “...Parts of the Mass would be in Latin, because it was a language people were likely to know. ...I felt the universality of the church in that setting.”

Guevin said he tries to impress upon his students the significance of the cathedral in Catholic design, saying its Gothic style is the Catholic vision “in stone and brick and wood.”

“The height of cathedral is supposed to lift you up, lift your eyesight heavenward,” he said. “You have to imagine it rising around the low, dark streets of Paris at the time it was built – that place of light and color and art, it raises you up.”

De Laire pointed out that the church survived some of the most pivotal and destructive periods of French history, from the French Revolution through both World Wars.

“It represents more than an edifice of faith and worship,” he said. “It’s probably why today, when faith plays a more trivial role in French society, we can see the signs in the outpouring of shock and grief in the coverage.”

For those who love Paris, it’s hard to imagine the city without it.

“I’m still pinching myself, asking if is this true, is it really happening,” Guevin said. “I planned to be in Paris next spring semester, and I keep thinking about what a different experience the city will be for me without that cathedral there.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)

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