Stones Calling to Conversion

This homily was preached at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the parish church of Saint-Eugène Sainte-Cécile, Paris. This selection begins after an introduction.

The fire occurred on April 15, 2019, the Monday of Holy Week. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cilcée
The fire occurred on April 15, 2019, the Monday of Holy Week. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cilcée

Seen from the sky the 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.

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?

Postmodern and Neo-pagan

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?

A Sign of Providence

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 Sainte 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 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. This homily was translated from the French by a friend of the parish and appeared in First Things Online on April 30, 2019.