Five years ago, before the fire that ravaged Notre Dame de Paris, I was traveling in France. One beautiful Sunday morning, I entered the cathedral to attend mass. The renowned beauty of Notre-Dame drew me into her sacred arms illuminated with jewels. Arrived early, I silently walked around the perimeter with every niche and nook, with every candle lit, resonating with the prayers and the hidden joys and sorrows of countless women and men whose footsteps had preceded me. I was alone, but accompanied by these pilgrimage companions.
As mass was about to begin, I found a place. My French in high school served me well and the familiar ritual and prayers kept me going. As I stood in line to receive the Holy Eucharist, I was enveloped in deep fear. In communion with all those who had gone before me in this great act of faith over the centuries, I was also accompanied by those who walked with me on this ordinary Sunday morning to receive the most extraordinary gift of Jesus made small in a flatbread to be consumed by his beloved brothers and sisters.
I returned to my seat filled with a burst of explosive joy. Once again Jesus, despite my unworthiness, was in me and in those who were seated a few inches to my right and left, behind me and in front of me. I lifted my head in prayer to see the last people approaching the priest in the communion line.
The last person in the line, a young woman, slowly stepped forward and held out her hands. The priest exchanged a few words with her, covered the ciborium with the palm of his hand and shook his head slightly, turning his back to her to return to the altar. The shock was as if he had slapped her. The woman, her head bowed and tears streaming, quickly walked past me.
I knew straight away that I had to look for her. As the final prayers and hymn were sung, I was worried that she was gone or that she was invisible in the large crowd. As I turned to find her, she stood alone four rows behind me, crying and sorry. As I approached her, I prayed for the words and even the language. I introduced myself and asked his permission to speak to him. She nodded, acknowledging that she had limited English.
I told her how sorry I was to witness what happened as she approached to receive Communion. She quickly started telling me that something terrible had happened to her as a child, which left her with a deep sense of shame and unworthiness.
Whispered fragments of his story fell apart. She had been sexually abused. Listening to her, heartbroken for her, I realized that another woman had joined us and also witnessed what had happened. She identified herself as a parishioner of Notre-Dame and expressed beautiful and kind words of comfort and welcome. His presence was a gift.
As they spoke, I remembered that I had rosary beads blessed by Pope Francis in the recesses of my purse in a small satin bag. I asked if I could give them to him. She held out her hands to receive them. Gently removing the pearls from the small bag, she had a puzzled expression on her face. She told me that she did not know the beads and that she did not understand their meaning.
Standing in Notre Dame Cathedral, where for millennia women and men have sought the comfort of Notre Dame, it was a moment as sweet as the heart can remember. With my hands clasped around the rosary, I explained that the rosary was a simple way to pray with Mary. Although delicate and small, the pearls lead us on a sure path to the heart of Jesus.
Already in Mary’s embrace, the woman who wept before me was not unworthy of the love of Jesus; she was not unworthy of his tender mercy. We stayed quiet for a while with the other woman from Notre-Dame. Grace streaming through the shimmering light of the rose window, it was as if the whole world stopped with us. She asked if she could kiss each of us.
The prayer that we offer before receiving Jesus the Eucharist springs into my heart: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. Just say one word and I will be healed.
The streets of our cities are torn by gun violence. Systemic and historical racism demands accountability. A broken immigration policy is long overdue for reform. LGBTQ siblings and their families struggle to be seen, respected and welcomed. Hundreds of thousands of families mourn the lives of loved ones lost to COVID-19. Fierce fires and floods erupt with unexpected fury. And the deep wounds of clergy sexual abuse and betrayed trust continue to call for healing and justice.
It is both disheartening and confusing, with all the fears and distress hanging over families and peoples of the world, that bishops are embroiled in the political divisions that continue to rock the country. As people timidly return to church after months of separation, a spiteful disagreement among bishops over something called “Eucharistic consistency” is baffling.
Long months of pandemic anxiety and isolation indicate a deeper recognition of our fragility, our need for God and our common humanity. Reading the signs of the times, the pastoral opportunities before the bishops are extraordinary. Each of us is the woman of encounter at Notre-Dame de Paris, with trembling hands extended, eager to touch the hem of her garment.
As the burnt embers are cleared and the great Notre-Dame cathedral is restored and rebuilt, let us find in this difficult but determined work the hope and the strength to open wide the doors of the church as a place where all humanity can find refuge. , to find healing, to find mercy in the one Body of Christ.