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Notre Dame Cathedral and My Pilgrimage of Faith

How a Trip with my Elderly Grandfather Started My Spiritual Awakening

Notre Dame Cathedral Fire - Heavy.com

My little monkey was making funny faces through the glass at a much larger monkey when I saw the Notre Dame Cathedral burning.

I fought back the tears while my 22-month-old boy entertained the other animals at the San Diego Zoo. It was hard to believe what I was seeing. The iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was burning as the world watched online.

Like so many others, I have a deep and spiritual connection to the iconic Paris church. When my son gets old enough to understand the significance of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, I plan on sharing with him why this event not only impacted our family — but the millions of families who were lucky enough to have visited Notre Dame before the tragic day that it burned.

The horrific news of the Notre Dame fire was broken to me by my wife via a BuzzFeed article on her Facebook feed showing the massive blaze that had ignited at the 850-year-old cathedral that day on April 15, 2019.

“I can’t believe it is on fire before you could take us there,” my wife said. She knew how extraordinary the Notre Dame Cathedral had been to the formation of my faith.

I will always remember the humility I felt as I knelt before God with my 84-year-old Grandfather in the nave of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The mystic Gothic cathedral was a prominent place on my pilgrimage of faith.

KNEELING BEFORE GOD AT NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL

In 2003 I had just finished studying abroad in Spain. Throughout the semester I had numerous conversations with my Grandfather to see if he was still planning on meeting me in the enchanting small city of Alicante after my semester concluded.

He would explain to me over the phone in his deep Bulgarian accent, “Shawn, I would not miss this opportunity for the world. I want to show you around Europe. I want to show you the cities I lived in. I want to show you, Heidelberg, where I studied medicine. You must see Bulgaria with your own eyes.”

I would reply, “I can’t wait Grandpa. I miss you so much and can’t wait to see you.”

Every time I hung up the public telephone outside the Plaza de Torro’s, I was uncertain if my Grandfather’s health would permit him to travel halfway across the world to see his grandson. I hoped and I prayed he could.

My prayers were soon answered.

I took an old beaten-down taxi to the small international airport in Alicante. I waited for the incoming flight from London not knowing how well my Grandfather would be holding up after such a long journey.

Sure enough, at four times my age, my 84-year-old Grandfather slowly walked out of the terminal. He supported his short, but eager, stature on a luggage cart. We could not restrain the tears during our joyous embrace.

My spiritual awakening occurred soon after on a wet Sunday morning during an extended stay in Paris. My Grandfather and I had finished our dark coffee and croissant breakfast at the hotel and walked four blocks to the Luxembourg Gardens.

While meandering through the gardens and observing the tranquility of the park, my Grandfather stopped and said to me, “I would like to go to Mass today. We have to thank God for all the blessings we have been given, to be healthy, to be together and to be able to travel and see this beautiful world.”

After a short taxi ride through the romantic city and over the historic River Seine, I found myself standing before one of the most magnificent Cathedrals ever built. With our arms linked together for support, my Grandfather led me down the dim candlelit aisle of Notre Dame to one of the very first wooden pews.

I could not help but smile as I listened to the water dance on the ornate Rose Window while we waited for Catholic Mass to begin. I experienced an overwhelming sense of humility kneeling next to my Grandfather, before God, in the nave of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

That Sunday morning, the church had provided a sanctuary for my Grandfather and me to share at the beginning of my quest to receive the Sacraments of Faith.

For the next four weeks I drove my Grandfather from Paris to the Bulgarian Black Sea. Along the journey we explored his conversion into the Catholic Religion.

I learned that in his small village in Bulgaria, he had been raised in the Eastern Orthodox faith. His exposure to Catholicism came when he immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio, and met my Irish Catholic Grandmother.

I could sense his enjoyment as he reclined in the passenger seat of our blue opal minivan with his legs up while explaining the intricacies of my family’s faith formation.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH MY FAITH

That fall I asked my Grandfather if he would be my Godparent as I prepared myself during the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults process at my alma mater, the University of San Diego. “Shawn, I would be honored to. Thank you for asking me,” he said.

I responded, “Grandpa, it is only appropriate if you and I can thank God together.”

On Oct. 23rd of that year, my Grandfather suffered a minor stroke and was hospitalized at a rehabilitation facility in downtown San Diego.

His stroke impacted his ability to walk and I was unsure if I could remove him from the hospital for the Rite of Acceptance at Founders Chapel at the University of San Diego. After discussing his health with my family and with the doctors, we were permitted to take him to the Rite.

My Grandfather told me that he would not have missed it for the world, no matter what the doctors said. His faith and persistence would not allow him to miss an opportunity to support his grandson.

I will never forget kneeling before my Grandfather in front of the University of San Diego community and having him mark a cross on each of my five senses while he was seated in his wheelchair.

Shawn Walchef & Luben Walchef at Founders Chapel

Falling in love with my faith started at the Notre Dame Cathedral on a Sunday many years ago. Thanks to God and my Grandfather’s guidance, that love continues to this day.

***

Let me know how you fell in love with faith or how the Notre Dame Cathedral impacted your life by tweeting @shawnpwalchef.

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, falling in love in a quite absolute final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love. Stay in love. And it will decide everything.”

Perdo Arrupe S.J.

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