crown of thorns

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

OK, Catholic readers of GetReligion (and you know who you are), we have a solution to a journalism mystery that many noticed in the wave of coverage following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

The big question raised by The New York Times: What’s the difference between a “statue” of Jesus and a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament”? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade and one of the heroes of efforts to save what could be saved inside the iconic cathedral. Quite a few people are reporting stories about the actions that he took when it became clear that there was no way to stop the flames in the wooden structures holding up the cathedral roof.

Here’s the top of my “On Religion” column for this week, which led with this angle of the story:

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

So here is a basic religion-beat journalism challenge: How does one describe the “Blessed Sacrament” in a few phrases? Some journalists struggled with that.

For some reporters, the crucial issue was trying to turn “sacraments” and holy relics into “art” and “artifacts.”

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Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.

It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.

Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.

Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?

I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.

The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:

PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.

So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.

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