by Fr. Aaron Johanneck
In the past several months, I have become aware of two different stories of priests running into burning churches to save precious items from being destroyed. The first story is told in the opening scenes of the first video of the Augustine Institute’s three-part video series entitled, Presence: The Mystery of the Eucharist. According to the video, in early December of 1912, Father Daniel Burke and Father Joseph Congedo ran into the burning Church of St. Philip Neri in New York to try to save what was most precious in the building.
More recently, on April 17 of this year, the Monday of Holy Week, another priest, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, entered the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris as the world watched the wooden roof and spire of the more than 800-year-old building consumed with flames and the spire eventually collapsing.
In both cases, among the precious items saved, indeed the most precious item in each of the churches, was the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Fr. Fournier is the chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade. He served as an army chaplain in Afghanistan. In 2015, when terrorists attacked a concert in Paris, he rushed into the theater to pray over the dead and to comfort the wounded and those who witnessed loved ones perish. He is clearly a selfless and brave man.
When he heard about the fire at Notre Dame, he rushed to the cathedral to save the precious relics that could be saved. Fr. Fournier described in interviews that in the church itself there was no smoke and it was not excessively hot. The fire was raging above, and rains of fire fell into the cathedral below. He and those who accompanied him first went to save, perhaps the most famous relic of Notre Dame, the Crown of Thorns, from the safe in which it was kept. Others hurried to retrieve and save other precious items.
From the Crown of Thorns, Fr. Fournier turned his attention to the Blessed Sacrament. A sacristan directed him to where the Sacrament was kept. He retrieved the Sacred Hosts from the tabernacle and then he blessed the burning cathedral with them. He asked Jesus—whom he affirmed he truly believes is present in the hosts—to fight the fire and to save the church dedicated to His Mother (Notre Dame is French for Our Lady). He explained that this blessing coincided with the beginning of a fire in the North Tower. In the end, both of the great towers of Notre Dame were saved. Fr. Fournier is convinced that this is due both to the work of the firefighters, and to the power of the blessing with the Holy Eucharist.
Had the Sacred Hosts in these true stories been mere bread, these priests would have been foolish to risk their lives by running into burning churches to save them. But they, of course, knew that at the moment of the Consecration those Hosts became the Sacred Body of Jesus Christ. The Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is the greatest treasure Christ has left to the Church, where He truly remains with us until the end of the world.
These priests, along with the whole Church from the beginning, take Jesus at His word when He says, “This is my Body,” and, “This is my Blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28, and parallels in Mark and Luke). They were willing to risk their lives for this powerful and beautiful revealed truth.