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.
Later in Paris, this specialness was driven eerily home as we waited to enter Notre-Dame. Three police officers stood amidst the roaming crowd, watching 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 scopes, the rectangular shaft, I assume, meant to store more bullets and perhaps greater fire power. I was both worried and grateful for their presence.
Inside the cathedral, the air was dim and cool, the pews packed with people. Mass was in progress and the choir stood in robes at the side chamber. They sang haunting melodies as the priest walked down the aisle, sprinkling holy water on attendees whose heads were bowed in reverence.
As we walked quietly among Asians, Europeans, Africans, and all else, 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, there was no audial disturbance. Just 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 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 was reading from the Bible. When he was finished, he shifted around 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.
In Notre-Dame, 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 life. 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 but rather the good-hearted, peaceful people with whom we’d shared that magnificence.