“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest Hemingway.
Patrick Beretta savors that moveable feast. Born in Paris, he spent much of his youth there. But Monday, as Notre Dame burned, it meant that he was doubly desolated — the cathedral is at the center of both his roots and his faith.
In an interview Monday, the Butte parish priest spoke wistfully of the many Masses he has attended at Notre Dame, and the joy he felt as a boy, visiting the great cathedral with his father.
“Today I’m feeling the emotion of growing up in a city, at the center of which is a great cathedral, a protective presence that endured through the wars of religion, the French Revolution, two world wars, the Nazi occupation,” he said. “It’s not just the cathedral’s longevity — it’s a symbol of stability. For it to disappear in the space of one afternoon is absolutely heartbreaking.”
Beretta said that the church has been not only a symbol of Catholicism, but also of beauty itself.
“Very few buildings in the world have achieved such architectural perfection,” he said. “It never seemed to age. From the time it was built starting in 1163 until today, it has defined supreme beauty. It evoked the thought, ‘That’s what beautiful is.’ Just as the Acropolis did for centuries.”
Beretta remembered his high school photography class. “We were to study a Paris landmark through photography,” he said. His assignment was Notre Dame.
“I walked around it, inside and out, for hours,” he said. “I remember making an image that my teacher said opened up a new way of seeing the cathedral.”
When he visited with his father, they ascended one of the towers, and he remembered being able to see all of Paris.
“It’s the second-tallest building in Paris to the Eiffel Tower,” he said. ““It was extraordinary to imagine all that the towers had seen.”
He also vividly remembers the gargoyles.
“They were diabolic mysterious figures, some showing great humor, others more dark. When you are a child, they haunt you.”
Now, he said, the religious loss is acute.
“It is the mother church of France,” he said. “France’s soul has been bruised by difficulties. The history of church and state since the French Revolution has been turbulent, to put it charitably, and complex. Still, the moment you walked into that church that has witnessed such turmoil and bloodshed, all you felt was sublime serenity.”
He said that when friends visited, they often wanted to go to Mass in the cathedral, just to experience the service in such a setting, and they would invariably be awed by feelings of peace and beauty.
“What has always struck me is that in spite of the ocean of visitors — 13 million on average every year — it has remained a refuge. It felt incredibly powerful, peaceful and sacred inside.”
He added, “I remember going to a concert there once,” Beretta said. “It was a requiem, played on the huge organ — one of the great instruments of Europe. That music, that organ, that setting, absolutely took your breath away.”
While he mourns the loss of the artifacts and art inside, “To me, the church itself is a great masterpiece, much more than what it contains.”
Beretta, a voracious student of history, observed that Paris was a relatively small town in the 12th century when the construction started. “When you think of the proportions, the magnitude of the structure, you realize the intent was to build a sacred mountain at the center of the city, and the city would grow around it. And it did, with the mother church at its heart, protector and inspiration.”
Beretta said, “There is a famous story about the building of Notre Dame: The bishop of Rouen came to the building site during construction and marveled that the hundreds of masons, stoneworkers and artisans were working in complete silence. The activity was immense — imagine the number of people it took to work on such a building. The fact that they worked in reverential silence rendered the bishop speechless. They knew they were creating an astonishing masterpiece for the ages.”
He mentioned that Notre Dame has been damaged before during various events in Parisian history — “but never to this magnitude.”
“It is a comfort to know that some things survive over so many extremely difficult and dark centuries,” Beretta said.
“And now that comfort is gone.”