In southern Germany, a few miles from both the Austrian and Swiss borders, there is a hamlet by the name of Wigratzbad. The tiny little town became a Marian pilgrimage site in the early 20th Century after a series of Marian apparitions began in 1918 and continued to 1936. The apparition became known as “Our Beloved Lady, Mother of Victory.” A chapel was constructed there, and consecrated in 1940 despite Nazi oppression. It is still a pilgrimage site, attracting about half a million visitors annually, and in 1988 was chosen to be the location of the first seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. On June 24, 1994, 28-year-old Jean-Marc Fournier was ordained a priest from the new seminary, having left his home in France to become one of the first priests ordained there. He spent most of the next ten years of his priesthood in Germany, then returned to France in 2004 to join the diocese of the French armed forces.
Fr. Fournier was deployed to Afghanistan and in August 2008 he was involved in an ambush that left ten men dead. He said he was “seized by fear,” yet he bravely ministered to the spiritual needs of the dying men with no regard to his own safety. In 2011, back in France, he joined the fire brigade of Paris, becoming their chaplain. Four years later, he once again found himself running toward the sound of gunfire. When Islamic terrorists attacked the headquarters of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, he helped evacuate the wounded while the gunfire was still underway. In November that same year, Fr. Fournier was on the scene at the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater, providing collective absolution for the dead and dying.
So it should come as no surprise that on April 15, 2019, when the fire broke out at Notre Dame, that Fr. Fournier was not just there, but running into the flames. “I had two priorities,” he said afterwards. “To save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament. The police took the crown and I took the Holy Sacrament.” With the Blessed Sacrament in hand, as the fire began to spread to the north tower, he gave a benediction to the cathedral. “I asked Jesus — and I really believe He is present in these hosts — to fight the flames and preserve the building dedicated to his mother.” At that moment, the firefighters got the blaze under control.
There was a time when France was one of the most Catholic nations in all of Europe. Today it is one of the most secular. In the Biblical commentary of George Haydock, he says, “God has often suffered sacred places to be profaned, when piety had been disregarded. All religious rites are designed for God’s glory and man’s welfare. Hence when they cease to serve God, the holy things are destroyed or taken away.” Is there any doubt that the fire at Notre Dame was an act of God? Yet with the prayers of just one priest, who had just rescued the body of Christ and the crown of thorns that spilled His precious blood, the Church dedicated to the Mother of God was saved from certain destruction.
On May 13, 1917, Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, the first of six apparitions that culminated with the Miracle of the Sun on October 13, 1917. During one of the apparitions, Our Lady showed the children a vision of hell. Sr. Lucia, one of the seers, wrote: “Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire, which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls, in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in this conflagration in clouds of smoke, lifted by flames coming out of their bodies. They rose and fell on all sides, like sparks in roaring fires, without weight or direction, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair that terrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. This vision lasted but a moment, thanks to our good Mother from Heaven who had warned us beforehand, and promised to take us to Heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of horror and fear.” Our Lady then said to the children: “Pray, pray much and make many sacrifices, for many souls go to Hell because they have no one to make sacrifices and to pray for them.”
The Son loves His mother with a perfect love. Of that, there can be no doubt. And oh, how the Mother loves not just her Son, but all of us with a perfect love. Our Blessed Mother, our Queen of Heaven wants to save us all from the flames. We all need to amend our own lives, yes. But let us not forget that there are also others who are trapped in houses that are burning with sin. And yes, at times it seems like the Catholic Church is also on fire. Yet when all might seem lost, as Our Lady of Paris reminds us, with one prayer to our Lord there can be salvation from the flames.