To a large degree being Catholic gives a traveler advantages in navigating the ABC’s of European travel. The ABC’s? All the Bloody Churches. Why does being Catholic help? Because where there are churches there are relics and ceremonies that have protocol that even the most latent Catholic can remember quicker than you can say, “Hail Mary.” For an accidental Catholic – a non-Catholic who is an accidental participant in Catholic ritual – finding yourself in what may look like a Holy aerobics session may be awkward because of all the sitting, crossing, kneeling, hand motions, etc. Recently, even I, a Catholic, was caught off guard when I went to the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns so I have put together these tips for getting the most out of your visit to see the Relics of the Passion at Notre Dame de Paris.
I should know by now that whenever I want to do something that I should double my time estimate. I thought that the Veneration would only take a few minutes for me to show-up, snap some photos and get on with my life, but… aaaahhhhh, not so fast. After arriving plenty early, I inquired at the information desk where to go and I was soon sitting among hundreds of people, including two women who chanted for a solid thirty minutes. Then, finally, the production started as the relics were brought out by a dozen priests. Perhaps most interesting at that point was seeing the Equestrian Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which is a Catholic chivalric order that can supposedly trace its heritage back to the First Crusade circa 1100. The ceremony quickly developed into typical Catholic fare with the standing, sitting, crossing oneself and incense burning set to organ music and singing. The grand finale was the opportunity to personally venerate the relic in a variety of ways including kneeling or prostating themselves before the crown, pressing their head upon, touching, just looking at, and/or kissing the jewel and glass encased Crown of Thorns. If the thought of kissing something after hundreds of people makes you want to throw up in your mouth, don’t worry because they are cleaning the glass with enough alcohol that the fumes would resurrect Lazarus. Since I was there I was curious to see the crown as closely as I could so I got in line. As I moved forward I could feel my skepticism evaporate and as I approached the relic presented in all its glory, my heart beats quickened, my breaths shortened and I unexplainedly became optimistic that in the jeweled case was the actual crown of thorns. For me this is sometimes what travel is: putting your beliefs aside, getting into the moment, respecting other people’s views and imagining the possibilities. At the very least people have been venerating this relic for centuries, which in itself is awesome. I recommend that if you have the opportunity you strongly consider this activity.
As a general rule this event is held the first Friday of the month but this can change so check this link here to confirm. It is in French but you should be able to make the month and date, it is always at 15:00 (3:00 pm).
Some options for how the Veneration can be done to fit your level of interest.
Experience the whole ceremony: Arrive about 2:00 pm (14:00) and choose a seat close to the front and near the center aisle. This provides a better view of the relics as they are carried by and you to be among the first to venerate the crown. NOTE: When you are within the veneration area cameras are forbidden. After visiting the relics, position yourself along the side to take pictures but the light and distance make this challenging with anything less than an excellent camera.
View the procession and take pictures: Note the following points on the map below: 0) Entrance to the Cathedral; 1-6) Facing the alter these numbers designate the south (i.e. right) side of the Cathedral. The best spot for picture taking is on the south side between points 2 and 4– from about the statue of Joan of Arc to the confessionals– the procession starts from around point 13 and passes these points before turning at number 2 into the pews. I recommend, getting there about 14:50 (2:30 pm) to stake your place to get the picture taking opportunities as the procession passes.
Just getting the best picture of the relics: This may be the easiest option. Right now, remember to check out the link above, the ceremony ends at 16:15 (4:15 pm) at which time the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher and the priests return the relics to their diggs. At about 4:00 position yourself in this area on South side just near the confessionals because the procession will exit right there within perhaps 20 feet (5 meters), marked on the above map. This is your best camera position because a straight on shot is possible rather than the side angle shots.
These options can be mixed and matched. If you are not seated in the pews when the ceremony begins you can enter after the relics have been placed on the alter. Depending on the crowd you will want to do this sooner than later. From what I saw the Knights started to stop people from getting in line around 30 minutes before the end of the ceremony. Moreover, when you are done with your visit you can still set up at the confessionals to take your pictures as the procession passes. Remember: No pictures are allowed inside of the seating area.
About the relics:
The Crown of Thorns was brought to Paris in 1239 by Louis IX because the Byzantine Emperor needed cash to help his waning Empire. The price paid was about 3 times what it cost to build Sainte-ChappelIe. The crown looks different than I expected in that it is simply a circulate of rushes (the same reeds that commonly make woven back chairs or baskets) void of any thorns, which surprised me as I had thought that the Roman soldiers spontaneously tore off some branches from a Jujube tree and joined the ends to make a ring that they used to crown Jesus. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the Roman soldiers wove this rush band, picked spines from a Jujube tree and stuck them through the wreath to make the crown. I only learned this after seeing the relic up close and thinking that it looked more like a smooth skinny woven band than a torture device. Appearently, Louis IX and his successors gave the thorns away as gifts.
The True Cross was discovered by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian Emperor, in 325 which was the same year that the Council of Nicaea convened in Turkey to calibrate Catholic beliefs. St. Helen traveled to the Holy Land and luckily found the True Cross and the nails used to crucify Jesus. There are a couple of stories that tell how St. Helen identified the Cross including its healing powers and another which said that it did not cast a shadow. Since the time of St. Helen the Cross has been broken into parts and there are now a few chunks of it across Europe including the one in Notre Dame.
The Holy Nails were also found by St. Helen which she gave to her son; he used on in his battle helmet and the other as the bridle for his horse. The third was supposedly tossed into the sea to calm a storm and has been lost. Santa Croce in Rome was built to house St. Helen’s finds that she brought back from the Holy Land. Today, there is still a nail housed in Santa Croce so what is said is that shavings have been taken of the other to spread the relic around and that is what is in Notre Dame, a shaving.
No matter if you are a casual observer, passivly religious or faithful visiting Notre Dame for the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns is worth your time. Throughout Europe there are many holy relics but this is the only chance to get upclose and personal with a majot object of veneration that people in Paris have been visiting since Louis IX brought it to France in 1239.