Rescuing Jesus From Notre Dame

As fire rained from the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Father Jean-Marc Fournier quickly and decisively, under pressure, went through the endangered church rescuing precious artwork, relics — and, finally, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

As a fireman, military veteran and chaplain to firefighters, Father Fournier knew the risks to his own life entering the burning Paris cathedral during the April 15 Holy Week fire. With the aid of the sacristan, he grabbed the tunic of St. Louis IX and the Crown of Thorns. Finally, he found Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, whisking him away and asking the hidden God to fight the flames.

Many people found in the Notre Dame Holy Week fire a metaphor for the suffering of the Catholic Church engulfed in sexual and financial scandals throughout 2019. But like Notre Dame Cathedral itself, the faithful witness of Catholic heroes like Father Fournier shone a bright light through the year’s darkness.

Father Fournier was no stranger to death: He served as chaplain in the French Forces in the 2000s and lost 10 comrades in Afghanistan during the 2008 Uzbin Valley Ambush. He joined the Paris Fire Brigade as their chaplain in 2011 and found himself again at the scenes of three terrible terrorist massacres in Paris as they unfolded: the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege, and the Bataclan theater attack. At Bataclan, he was seen praying before the bodies of the slain and offering absolution to the wounded.

“I just feel I am a pilgrim on this earth,” he told the Register. “I remember this sentence from St. Paul: ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4). We know that all of our surrounding world is only transitory — we move toward eternity. But we won’t have eternity on this earth.”

He explained that rescuing the relics of Jesus’ passion was “extraordinarily important.”

“Sometimes, one needs tangible signs. We are a little bit like those Pharisees, who asked Jesus to give them a sign. And Jesus answered that he hadn’t stopped giving signs,” he said.

“We do not need this to believe, but it is also true that every additional [element that points to the credibility of the faith] is precious.”

But, above all, he agreed that saving the cathedral or the Crown of Thorns made sense only if Jesus were truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Without it, “all of this is complete nonsense.”


Laying Down His Life

More than two dozen school shootings took place in 2019, according to one count by ABC News, leaving six dead and 44 injured. The death toll could have been much higher had it not been for the heroic self-sacrifice of Kendrick Castillo, an 18-year-old Catholic whose final sacrifice prevented another Columbine-like massacre in Littleton, Colorado.

When a gunman entered STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, intending to execute his teacher and fellow classmates just three days before graduation, Castillo did the one thing that all his friends and family knew he would do: He lunged at the gunman using his body as a shield. The attacker took his life, but no one else’s, as two classmates used the opportunity Castillo created to subdue their would-be executioner.

Kendrick died, but only eight others would be injured that day.

A security guard subdued a second gunman, and thus a second Columbine massacre, which occurred in Littleton 20 years earlier, had been averted.

Castillo was described as an avid outdoorsman who loved fishing and hunting with his father, watching movies with his mother, and working on cars, computers and robots. People spoke about how he cared deeply for the elderly, loved his country and served others. But, above all, he was a disciple of Jesus Christ.

“Kendrick gave everything he is and everything he had — family, a future, a degree, his life — so other young men and women could go back to their families, have a future, graduate and live,” Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, auxiliary bishop of Denver, said at the teen’s private May 17 funeral Mass at St. Mary Church in Littleton. “Only a young man with God in his heart and possessing a big, good heart can do what he did: to lay down his life to save his friends.”

Castillo, who assisted his father, a Knight of Columbus, in 2,600 hours of community service, was posthumously given the Knights’ highest award — the Caritas Award — and was granted full membership in the Knights by acclamation with a standing ovation at the Knights’ convention in August.

John Castillo told the Knights assembly that his son showed “love for anybody he met.”

“He was compassionate. If you were walking down the street and stumbled, he’d see if you were okay,” he said. “It’s no secret to us that Kendrick did what he had to do. … I’ve always known he was a gift and a hero.”


A Healing Prayer

“Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.”

On May 15, 2013, Melissa Villalobos was on the floor of her bathroom, miscarrying her child and expecting to die in a pool of blood. She had prayed to then-Blessed John Henry Newman before, the last time her baby miscarried, but kept her faith and cried out to him once more in desperation. John Henry Newman’s miraculous “reply” that day would open the door to his canonization with Melissa, her husband, David, and their seven children in attendance.

Melissa told the Register that it was important for them to be in Rome for the Oct. 13 canonization despite the travails of traveling with a young family and the media attention. “I would gladly do it all for Cardinal Newman,” she said.

Back in 2013, Villalobos and her husband had been warned by physicians early in the pregnancy that their baby’s placenta had a hole and blood was escaping. Also, a blood clot two and a half times the size of their unborn baby had lodged in the fetal membrane.

Doctors ordered bed rest for Villalobos, a mother of four whose husband had to travel often for work. Even then, the doctors expected the child — if all went well — to be born prematurely with complications. And on that day, Villalobos’ husband was on a plane traveling for work. She had four children downstairs and no one to turn to for help, except Cardinal Newman.

“‘Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.’ Those were my exact words. Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped.”

Villalobos explained that instantly something changed, describing how “the strongest scent of roses I’ve ever smelled” filled the air, which “gave me the confidence to go downstairs to see the children.” Each time she thanked Cardinal Newman by name, Villalobos (and only she) could smell the roses.

A prearranged scan at the hospital that day astonished doctors: Not only was her recovery complete, but everything was “perfect” with the pregnancy. There was no longer a hole in the placenta, and, on Dec. 27, 2013, Melissa gave birth to a healthy full-term baby girl, Gemma.

“Several times a day I think of what has happened and try to show my gratitude,” Villalobos told the Register, “just to be as loving as I can be.”


‘Unplanned’ Witness

Abby Johnson’s memoir Unplanned, the story of her journey from a Planned Parenthood facility director to pro-life advocate — catalyzed by Johnson’s experience assisting with an abortion — went from the book store to the big screen this year.

Many pro-life leaders credited the ability to see Johnson’s life dramatically portrayed on screen for galvanizing a new wave of pro-life volunteers to join the fight against abortion.

Johnson entered the Catholic Church after her pro-life conversion. In addition to her efforts to get pro-life clinic alternatives to Planned Parenthood off the ground, such as the Guiding Star health centers, Johnson is also the director of And Then There Were None, a ministry that helps people leave the abortion industry.

Johnson explained at the Unplanned premiere that she wanted the film to be “a really honest conversation about abortion in the first trimester.” She said the film definitely awakened people who had identified as pro-life but had not taken an active role in the movement. “There’s never been a film like this before,” said Johnson.

“The pro-life movement has never been willing to push the boundaries. Now, I think they’re ready. I think people are seeking the truth about this issue.”

Still, Johnson said it is “a very vulnerable place to be,” with “your greatest sins, your biggest hurts, the biggest struggles you’ve been through up on a screen — for anyone to watch.”

Johnson said she went through with the film because it had a higher purpose.

“I did not sign the deal to do this film to make Abby Johnson a household name,” she said. “I did it to make the redemptive power of Christ a household dialogue.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.