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A Letter from Paris
As winged terror fell upon America, I was at an IKEA furniture store north of Paris with my wife and daughter. We were there to look at furniture for our move to that city in November, as I prepare to assume in January my new duties as Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.
The Swedish department store has arrangements of living room furniture clustered around working television sets. I noticed a crowd gazing intently at one. Two talking heads were exchanging notes on something that had occurred in America only an hour before. Gradually the story became clear: terrorists had flown an airplane into the World Trade Center. We immediately left and went back to the apartment so kindly loaned to us for our trip by the present Bishop in Charge, Jeffery Rowthorn. (He and his wife Anne were in Connecticut at the time.) There we learned the whole truth. I was furious at the terrorists, not only for their heinous acts but also because now we would go to war.
As we were now marooned in Paris, I called Dean Ernie Hunt at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. It was very hard to be separated from my parish, St. Andrew’s, Fort Pierce, Florida, at that terrible moment. I felt the need to do something, anything to be of help. Dean Hunt immediately asked me to preach with him and celebrate the Eucharist at a special service the next day. I did not realize then that I was assuming to an extent the role of bishop malgré moi.
We celebrated a Eucharist for Peace, using Scripture from Micah, Ephesians, and Matthew (the Beatitudes). My daughter served as an acolyte. We sang somber settings of the Trisagion and Sanctus, as well as the 23rd Psalm, punctuated by a stately, serious "Mighty Fortress Is Our God" at the Sequence. Dean Hunt spoke of this as a theological struggle, using a judicious quote from Douglas MacArthur at the signing of the Japanese surrender in 1945, to the effect that force of arms cannot make peace. I spoke against stereotyping Muslims or Arabs. Just as hatred crucified Jesus but love raised him up, I said, so will we triumph if we do not allow ourselves the luxury of hatred and vengeance. The prayers included the Supplication and the Prayer For Our Enemies (#6). I celebrated the Eucharist with Frs Nathaniel Tsieh and Bernard Vignot, heads of our Chinese and Francophone ministries, respectively, as well as the Dean. At the end we processed out to "My Country Tis of Thee," and then sang the national anthem at the back. I had asked that we not omit the second verse, which is the more significant.
As we greeted the crowd of some 400, no eye was dry, least of all mine. Two American Airline flight attendants hugged me and we prayed for their lost friends. There were a considerable number of French people, all of whom expressed their unanimity with us. Their bouquets of flowers, candles, poems, written sentiments began to pile up at the cathedral gate. Even the French police outside made a point of expressing their sympathie et solidarité —and if you know them, that is extraordinary. They did an excellent job of providing security, by the way.
One unforgettable image: a burly French firefighter in uniform, wearing a New York Fire Department shirt over it, lighting a candle, tears streaming down his face. He had trained with the NYFD, he explained.
Because I am fluent in French, Dean Hunt asked me to handle the press. All the French national media interviewed me. CNN, AP and Newsweek also interviewed me in English. The clips I've seen show our Cathedral and our liturgy wonderfully well, and they interspersed my few remarks with moving interviews of several parishioners. People have written from as far away as New Zealand and Russia to say they saw the coverage. What especially pleased me was that the coverage was really quite evangelistic..."here the Cathedral ministers to the hurting,” etc. Many of the press corps were wiping their eyes as well during the liturgy.
I will never forget that Wednesday. I am so proud of how our Dean and Cathedral responded swiftly and with great sensitivity to the occasion. The liturgy was wondrous. As always, the Prayer Book carried us along, enabling us to hear the Scriptures and sense the presence of the Spirit even in this dire time.
Thursday night, September 13, I went with the Dean to represent us at a service for the French government, held at the American Church, an interdenominational congregation across the Seine from our Cathedral. (I was organist there in 1976 for several months.) Both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were there, as well as the French high command and our Ambassador to France. That in itself was a great tribute, since they took a big chance. One grenade and the nation would have been decapitated... The Cardinal of Paris, the Rector of the Mosque, France’s Chief Rabbi, and the pastor of the American Church spoke. I did not speak, but our daughter Marie's new friend Louise Trueheart did, representing the Episcopal Church. The eleven-year-old ended the service by reading Psalm 133 in English first, and then in beautiful French. Her piping voice intoning “How good and pleasant it is when all dwell in unity…” contrasted sharply with the grave tones of the great men’s sermons. President Chirac appeared genuinely moved. The leading newspaper of France, Le Monde , wrote the next day, "une fillette lisant un psaume était la seule lueur d'esperance ..." (“A little girl reading a psalm was the sole ray of hope.”) And that lueur was an Episcopalian.
The next day, Friday, was the national day of mourning in France and indeed, across Europe. We met that morning with the lawyer I had retained earlier to advise me on taxes. She invited us to a service at the Flame of Liberty, a replica of Liberty's flame in New York erected at the Place de l'Alma, close to the Cathedral. When we arrived, the organizers, members of the Cathedral, recognized me and pressed me into service to speak, lead a prayer and a hymn. At noon the whole nation observed three minutes of silence, as did the large crowd of Americans gathered at Liberty’s Flame. Notre Dame's great bell, the bourdon , rang out, a rare event indeed. Its low F# is a sound never to be forgotten, carrying for miles over the City of Light. (My family, hiding in the cellar of their home in Paris, heard that bell on August 25, 1944, and knew then that Paris was finally free again. The bourdon is heard only for the most serious of occasions.)
Saturday evening I preached and celebrated in French for the first time ever. The attendance at the Francophone liturgy is usually around sixty. It was at least twice that, a harbinger of the massive crowd the next day. I spoke of my deep shock on Thursday of seeing a friend’s picture in the Herald Tribune, CeeCee Lyles, one of the many dead. I told them about her, a beautiful, smart, tough woman with two sons she dearly loved and a new husband. A flight attendant on the Pittsburgh plane, she had had time to call her family to say good-bye. I imagine she joined the effort to foil the terrorists. CeeCee had been a police officer before she re-married and started a new career.
Sunday we had nearly 1000 people at the American Cathedral. We came within three hosts of running out of communion! I read Bp Rowthorn's superb pastoral letter from the pulpit, dressed in a cope at the Dean's insistence. Bishop Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh was also stranded in Paris with several of my old friends, so we stood together at the altar. The choir sang magnificently, Dean Hunt preached a fine sermon, the Bishop gave his blessing—and the crowd, overflowing out the doors and onto the Avenue George V, worshipped with great intensity.
We were finally able to return on Wednesday, the 19th, a week after our scheduled departure. It was an extraordinary experience for me as well as all of us in America and France. The quarter-million Americans in Paris have felt an outpouring from the French unparalleled since the war. Parisians accosted anyone speaking American English, excusing themselves but needing to express their shock and solidarity. This very un-French, very indiscret behavior was even more surprising to many because of the offers of support. “You were with us in the wars, now we are here for you,” was a sentiment repeated to me over and over. “Nous sommes tous des américains,” proclaimed Le Monde.
As for this Américain, it was a great privilege to be there at that time. I still am amazed to have been able to share in the ministry of Episcopalians across Europe, gathering not only our compatriots but also our hosts into our churches to worship and find solace and strength from God and each other. I hope Episcopalians back home remember that across the ocean, there are faithful people sharing the great task now facing the American church.
For we all have work to do. We have the dead to mourn, the grieving to console, and the wounded to heal. And beyond that is our witness to Christ in this struggle. Hatred and vengeance lead only to smoking ruins and piles of corpses of the innocent, as we Americans now know only too well. Only love triumphs in the end. Those who want victory must first live in love, striving “for justice and peace among all people.” Only faith can give us the power to do so. That is, I believe, the message we must get out and live out.
[Fr Whalon welcomes
comments or questions. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]