A devotional shrine, a tourist magnet or a triumphal proclamation of French religious conservatism, the Sacre Coeur has from its construction been a cause of ambivalence and conflict. Its huge white bulk looms over the city of Paris and its porch provides one of the best views of the city.
The basilica was built between 1875 and 1914, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and the occupation of the city by the radical Paris Commune. This brought to a head the long-simmering split between the socialists on one hand and the ultramontanists and royalists on the other. The church was built as a memorial for the war dead and to expiate the crimes of the communards against the Church. Many clergy, along with the archbishop, were martyred during the occupation, and the suppression of the communards was equally vicious. Montmartre was the origin of the communard uprising and a place where many were executed and left in abandoned mine shafts on the mount. Montmartre (the hill of martyrs) is also the legendary place where the first bishop of Paris, the missionary St. Denis, and his companions were beheaded for the faith in 250. Montmartre had been a place for pilgrims long before the basilica was built.
After the Commune, arch-conservative Catholics responded with a call to national spiritual revival. The Basilica of Sacre Coeur became their symbol, and its construction the consequence of a fervent National Vow. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a characteristically French devotional expression, became the rallying point and was a natural choice for the name and dedication of the basilica. The bitterness of the political division between anticlerical and religious Frenchmen lingered for many years, resulting in several attempts to cancel the construction. George Clemenceau called it an attempt to stigmatize the Revolution.
The end result was a magnificent structure, even in its triumphalism. The style is Romano-Byzantine, and it was designed by one of the leading French architects of the day. It was built entirely with donations after the land was condemned by the government and turned over to the Church. Triumphal elements abound: equestrian statues of King St. Louis IX and St. Joan of Arc at the entrance, and a large mosaic of the Battle of Lepanto, the 1571 defeat of the Turks by the combined Catholic navies. The apse mosaic of Christ in Majesty is the largest in the world on that theme.
Sacre Coeur is a major destination for religious and secular tours. The dome, after an arduous climb, provides stunning views of Paris, and for the less agile, the front plaza does much the same. To accommodate tourists, a funicular was built from the lower levels to the courtyard, and on weekends, the church swarms with visitors. In the face of this, the ministry staff has a number of religious services and programs and tries to use the occasion of tourist visits to offer ministry.
The ministry of the basilica includes spiritual retreats and counseling, and pilgrimage groups come from all over as part of the mix of visitors. The Sacrament has been exposed for adoration in a special chapel since the basilica began, and is a focus of pilgrim prayer. Four offices are chanted and several Masses are celebrated every day in the basilica. The official guesthouse offers retreat days on the first Friday of every month. There are also several pilgrim hostels on the mount.
See also: Paray-le-Monial, Paris, Religious Tourism
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