As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral’s wooden rafters — each beam cut from an individual oak — a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to “save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament.” Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that “art,” “artifacts” and “works of art” had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had “for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness.”

That’s an interesting way to describe the world’s second-most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter’s in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe to be bread consecrated into the Body of Christ best described as a “cultural artifact”? Is “in shock” the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria”?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national “On Religion” column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a “religion” story, or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is “yes” — to both.

Nevertheless, journalists struggled to grasp that Notre Dame was both a Christian holy place and a major institution in French history and culture. Also, many believers were stunned that this disaster happened at the start of Holy Week, days before Easter. While officials were careful not to rush to conclusions, the painful truth was that this blaze came after weeks of fires and hellish acts of vandalism in at least 10 other French churches.

What now? It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all these fires and acts of vandalism. At the same time, it would be crazy for police and journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

Pope Francis was careful, too. He said this fire took place in “these Holy Days where we remember Jesus’ passion, his death and his resurrection.” He carefully noted that this disaster seriously damaged an “architectural jewel of a collective memory,” a “national symbol dear to the hearts of Parisians and French in the diversity of their beliefs” and, yes, an iconic “witness of the faith and prayer of Catholics in the city.”

What now? By midweek, donors had contributed nearly $1 billion to rebuild the cathedral, where the first construction efforts began in the 12th century.

It helps to know that, understanding how old churches were built, firefighters followed what some called a “medieval protocol” that helped them to save what could be saved. Facing the painful reality that they could not stop a fire in the wooden structures holding up the roof, Father Fournier and other firefighters rushed to save sacred art and relics that could never be replaced.

Firefighters were, it appears, able to remain in the stone cathedral towers and prevent sparks and flames from igniting the wooden structures holding the giant bells. While the fires raged, streams of water covered Notre Dame’s priceless rose windows, preventing the lead and glass from melting. Stone walls protected the altar area, where a giant gold cross stands behind an 18th-century statue of St. Mary holding Jesus after his crucifixion.

Pope Francis concluded: “While saluting the courage and the work of the firefighters … I express the wish that the Notre Dame cathedral can become again, thanks to the works of reconstruction and the mobilization of all, this beautiful case in the heart of the city, sign of the faith of those who built it, mother church of your diocese, architectural and spiritual heritage of Paris, France and humanity.”

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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