Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, was on his way with a group of military chaplains to a dinner with a local bishop on Holy Monday when they noticed plumes of black smoke towering over the French capital.
He looked at his phone and saw many missed messages telling him the cathedral was on fire.
The priest, who served in Afghanistan as an army chaplain, then immediately rushed to Notre Dame cathedral where he “swiftly greeted” French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, and Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris.
“Quickly we focus on the priority: the relics of the Passion and the Blessed Sacrament,” he recalled in an April 17 interview with Famille Chrétienne.
But first they had to overcome the first obstacle: the Crown of Thorns was locked in a safe.
“We must find the key and above all, the code. But we don’t find anyone to communicate with.”
While he tried to find someone who knew, members of a group equipped to work in the cathedral strove to save other priceless objects according to a “predetermined plan.”
“Was there any sense of panic at this point?” the interviewer asked.
“None at all,” said Father Fournier. “Nobody panics. There is simply a little more stress because we know that time is against us.” Stress is “good,” he added, “because it helps to make decisions instantly.”
Eventually, they managed to obtain a set of keys from the sacristan, and firefighters were able to find a steward who had the code.
“He was able to open the safe and took out the Crown of Thorns,” said Father Fournier. “The first objective was met.”
Attention then turned to the Blessed Sacrament.
By that time, the spire had collapsed and at any moment, the “ship may collapse,” the priest recounted. He said two fires were burning on the ground: one at the front main altar, and another in front of the high altar, in front of the choir of the canons.
“Rains of fire keep falling from the roof,” he said. “In the cathedral is a very particular atmosphere: no smoke, and no excessive heat.”
They decide to rationalize on which treasures in the cathedral should be rescued and act “systematically,” passing through each of the chapels in turn. As they recover the priceless works, they place some of them in a yard and protect them with waterproof covering.
After retrieving “altar fittings, Our Lady of Czestochowa,” and several “great icons, “we cannot go further,” Father Fournier recalled. “The officer tells us it’s too dangerous to continue.”
“Did you feel you were risking your life?” asked the interviewer.
“Every time we enter a burning building!” said Father Fournier. “And it’s not an impression. It’s a reality!”
After retrieving the priceless relics and art it was “effectively time to get Jesus out of the cathedral in flames,” Father Fournier continued.
He asked the sacristan where the consecrated hosts were located.
“The Real Presence lies in two places,” came the reply. “First on the altar of the Canons, where there are many thousands of hosts to carry.”
But the hosts were located under a “tangle of brining girders” and “molten lead” that continually fell from the roof. “It’s absolutely impossible to reach!” Father Fournier told Famille Chrétienne (an editor's note says those hosts may not ultimately have been affected).
A second location was at the altar of St. George. “We find the key. I recover Jesus,” the priest said, and having retrieved Him, he then blessed the cathedral with the Blessed Sacrament.
“It is an act of faith,” said Father Fournier who once served as a priest with the traditional Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).
“I asked Jesus — and I really believe he is present in these hosts — to fight the flames and preserve the building dedicated to his mother.”
His blessing, he added, coincided with the beginning of a fire in the North Tower but “at the same time its extinction!” Without doubt, the priest said, it was due to “Providence” and also that the two belfries were saved.
He repeated that he asked Jesus, whom “I really believe to be in these hosts,” to “fight the flames.”
The hosts and some of the cathedral treasures were left in the sacristy, which “was not threatened by the fire.” The Crown of Thorns was taken to the workers’ living quarters.
He and a fire sergeant then climbed the still-accessible South Tower and saw the roof had been completely destroyed.
Asked about his thoughts at that moment, Father Fournier remembered it was the beginning of Holy Week, and also the words at the beginning of Lent — “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” But he also thought of the Resurrection.
“I had both the great sadness of the loss,” he said, but at the same time, “this unspeakable joy related to the hope of the Resurrection. I knew that the cathedral would be rebuilt more beautiful, stronger and more alive!” he said.
Asked what he meant by “more alive,” he replied: “Because many buildings are rather dead shells” and there’s a risk of religious monuments “turning into whited sepulchers.”
When such buildings collapsed, burned or were attacked in the past, “everyone rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt,” he said. “These buildings should be a reflection of our lives,” he said, “with joys and sorrows, death and life.”
Father Fournier said it was because he is a member of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher that his focus turned to the Crown of Thorns. “I have a special bond with her!” he said. “It’s a huge relief to know she is saved. Humanity hasn’t been deprived of one its most precious treasures.”
The priest showed a similar act of bravery in 2015 when soon after the terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert in Paris, he entered the theater to pray over the dead, and comfort those who were injured or had lost loved ones.
Asked if he took pride in such acts, Father Fournier said he felt “legitimate pride” in doing good, but “without forgetting that this good is not of us who are only useless servants of the Lord’s grace.”