It may be surprising, but Sacré Cœur is a relatively new church.
Groundbreaking began in 1875 and finished in 1914. It was only consecrated in 1919 (delayed by the Great War)… that’s less than 100 years ago, for the mathematically challenged among us.
The story of the basilica’s indiscreet existence winds its way through politics and religion in 19th century France, but it really begins with the diffusion of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, first proposed by St. Marguerite-Marie Alacoque in the late 17th century. We find a letter from her to Louis XIV, dated 1689, which reads:
“The Eternal Father, wishing reparation for the bitterness and anguish that the adorable heart of His Divine Son had experienced amongst the humiliations and outrages of His Passion, desires an edifice where the image of this Divine Heart can receive veneration and homage.”
You can see this text in stone near a statue of the saint in the basilica.
Without a full course in France’s modern political history, one can simply state that, throughout the several rises and falls of the monarchy in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods, a large number of the faithful were displeased with the transgressions of those who had gone before them, most recently under Napoleon III. This group included the mercurial royalty. With the cult of the Sacred Heart picking up steam, especially once Pius IX beatified Alacoque in 1864, the natural choice was to fulfill Louis XVI’s vow (made while he was imprisoned) to build a chapel to the Sacred Heart, and the top of the “Butte Montmartre” seemed the best place – and not just for its obvious dominance of the skyline… Many of the more important incidents of the very recent “Paris Commune” of 1871 had taken place there in that exact spot. This radical socialist government echoed the Revolution and executed the Archbishop of Paris at its opening. “Penance through architecture,” was the thought. The rationalist and anti-clerical sins of the Revolution, which had been the cause of so much bloodshed, would surely be expiated by a fitting monument to the Sacred Heart as Alacoque had proposed.
construction in 1882
And it is fitting indeed. Paul Abadie, who won the competition to be its architect, was clearly no artistic slouch. The domes, which might remind one of Byzantine churches, rise proudly in the northernmost part of the city. The tourist who casually meanders throughout Paris is almost just as likely to catch a glimpse of the gleaming white stone atop Montmartre as he is to spot the Eiffel Tower.
The somewhat Roman facade gives the building a strange elegance, but the overall impression of the building is that it is a kind of sepulcher: is it marking the death of the spirit of the Revolution? Is it honoring the innocent lives taken by it, even those in that very spot? Most definitely both.
The interior of the basilica matches the Romano-Byzantine structure. The mosaic overlooking the apse is one of the largest of its kind. Notice the “GALLIA POENITENS” underneath the image… “Gaul penitent.”
A trip to the basilica will never disappoint, not just for the unique architecture, but also for the religious exercises. There has been perpetual adoration in the church since 1885, even before its construction was finished. The Benedictine sisters associated with the basilica chant compline there as well, which is phenomenal. One can also stay at the basilica for a very low price, though you must sign up for an adoration shift during the night and be in by 8 PM. The overall atmosphere is extraordinarily reverent for a major tourist attraction, in stark contrast to Notre Dame. And then there is the view…
If all this weren’t enough to convince a traveler to climb the hill through all kinds of rather aggressive vendors, or at least to take the “funicular,” the Jesuits were also founded on the top of Montmartre in the church right next door.
Sacré Cœur fittingly overlooks one of the most “exciting” neighborhoods in Paris, and even all of Europe, continually fulfilling its ever-needed function of penance for sins. At night, the gleaming structure almost seems to call out softly to the streets below, “Come, see this Heart of mine…” It stands as a perpetual and extremely visible monument to the Faith, built quite literally on the ruins of sin and death.