When my skeptical ten-year-old asked what we would see when visiting Paris, I said, “We’ll see Notre-Dame cathedral. It’s the most famous church in the world!”
“Really? In the whole world?” she said.
Kids often use the phrase, “in the whole world” to emphasize whatever thing they admire. “She’s my best friend in like, the whole world,” or “That place has the best smoothies in the whole world.” So I purposefully used it to emphasize the value of the trip. It worked. And in this case, I believed it to be mostly true. There are beautiful houses of worship in say, Russia or India or China, but I couldn’t think of a more recognizable church.
In a calm, reassuring voice, I said, “Yes. The entire world.”
“Cool…” she said.
Sunday Afternoon at Notre-Dame
Later in Paris, I eerily felt this specialness as we waited in line to enter Notre-Dame. Three police officers stood amidst the roaming crowd, scanning the square while holding the largest guns I’d ever seen in my life. They weren’t the machine guns I’d come across in movies or news photos, they were heavy, rectangular hunks of black plastic with scope. The rectangular shaft, I assume, stored more bullets and created greater fire power. I was both worried and grateful for their presence.
Inside the cathedral, the air was dim and cool. People sat quietly in the pews. A priest stood at the altar and the choir, in robes, stood in the side chamber. They sang haunting melodies as the priest walked down the aisle, sprinkling holy water on attendees. Their heads were bowed in reverence.
Visitors From Around the World
As we walked quietly among Asians, Europeans, Africans, and others, we admired the great art, the soaring architecture, the serenity of the ceremony. Though this kind of stone hall creates a harsh echo any time someone knocks against a pew or drops an object, no one disturbed the quiet. There was only the sound of the priest speaking, the worshippers replying. Visitors wandered, some with hands folded behind their backs. I took a photo of a large Madonna and child painting rising over everyone in a plaintive blessing. When I finished, a Japanese woman nodded a “thank you” as I stepped aside. Two older ladies knelt at a small altar in a nook and prayed in earnest. A cluster of students pointed at the paintings of Christ on the walls, debating some feature I couldn’t discern. Near the nave’s front, an Indian man filmed a woman at the podium who read from the Bible. When he finished, he moved so an Italian father could lift his daughter to see the altar. We all took turns rotating into the best viewing spots, then returned to waiting families or friends.
A Memorial Candle
In Notre-Dame, as in most Catholic churches, you can make a donation and light a candle for the dead. I lit two, one for my father, one for my husband’s father. My daughter asked me in a whisper who they were for. “My dad and daddy’s dad,” I said. She watched as I set the candles on the rack, each one glowing as a pure silent tribute to a life lived. I thought of how my father had never seen Notre-Dame, or Paris, or lived into a time when police guarded famous landmarks because a few hopeless criminals wanted to create destruction and despair.
Outside, the setting sun cast a gentle orange light on the buildings and trees. I held my daughter’s hand, happy to have shown her the most famous church “in the whole world.” More so, I was glad to have shown her Notre-Dame’s best feature, not the church in all of its magnificent architecture and art but rather the good-hearted, peaceful people with whom we’d shared that magnificence.