Merciful Heart

Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris is built on the site of martyrdom.

When God comes to earth again, I believe he would, in a spare moment, rest with us on the steps of Sacré-Coeur Basilica. And there, together, we would look out upon Paris, and we would come to know the depth of his love for us.

It took a few minutes to climb the steep steps up Montmartre (including the time it took for me to catch my breath several times). After the Eiffel Tower, the basilica is the highest point in Paris. The view is outstanding, and I could easily devote my entire time in Paris to simply contemplating its beauty from this vantage point rather than walking its streets.

The church was originally meant to honor the 58,000 soldiers who lost their lives during the Franco-Prussian War. Paul Abadie, the original architect, died almost immediately after the basilica’s foundation was laid. Construction lasted from 1875 to 1914, but the church wasn’t consecrated until 1919, due to World War I. The basilica had seven architects over the course of its construction.

According to tradition, St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, and his companions were martyred here — thus the name Montmartre (martyrs’ hill). For this reason, other saints have made their way here to pray, including Joan of Arc, Bernard, Vincent de Paul, Clotilde, Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola.

Prior to the basilica, a Benedictine abbey occupied Montmartre. During the French Revolution, the nuns of the abbey were guillotined, thus continuing the tradition of martyrdom.

The name of the church means “Sacred Heart,” referring to the heart of Christ that is the seat of his infinite love, omniscience and merciful will — in other words, Christ’s whole person, including his humanity and divinity.

Sacré-Coeur is an incredible place of pilgrimage where Christ’s Sacred Heart is worshipped ceaselessly. Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has continued unabated at the basilica since 1885 (prior to the church being finished).

The Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on Friday of the second week after Pentecost. This year, it is June 19, which also marks the beginning of the Year of the Priest, called for by Pope Benedict XVI.

According to Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Father Peter Stravinskas, devotion to the Sacred Heart consists primarily in attention to the inexhaustible source of mercy and love poured out for us by God through the pieced heart of Christ. The devotion arose in the 12th century, and French nun St. Margaret Mary Alacoque experienced visions of the Sacred Heart between 1673 and 1675 at Paray-le-Monial in central France.

Piercing Mosaic

The overall style of Sacré-Coeur shows a strong Romano-Byzantine influence reminiscent of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia and Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. There is an interesting property of the travertine stone used in its construction: It constantly exudes a compound known as calcite, which ensures the basilica remains white, despite the effects of time and pollution.

No sooner had I closed my eyes and sat down, basking in the beautiful sunshine, when “Savoyarde,” the church’s 19-ton bell, announced the next Mass. The trickle of people entering the church turned into a steady flow, leaving the crowded steps empty.

I stepped into the cool darkness of the church and waited for my eyes to adjust. A glint of golden light just above me and to my left caught my attention. Spread across the church’s apse above the altar was the most compelling image of Christ I have ever come across. The mosaic entitled “Christ in Majesty” depicts his triumphant resurrection. It is one of the largest mosaics in the world and took 22 years to complete.

I made my way to the nave, somewhere near the middle, and sat down. The Mass faded away from me as I was drawn into the image’s beautiful eyes. Christ’s mesmerizing face is a curious mélange of mankind’s three major races: Asian, African and European.

Mass finished yet almost no one left the pews. I had hoped I could spend time with the Lord in peaceful silence and solitude. I realized everyone there similarly wanted to be alone with their Savior. And so, there I sat, looking into the eyes of the mosaic, reveling in the glorious silence of this magnificent sanctuary. I felt tiny, humbled and insignificant as I sat beneath the image of the Sacred Heart triumphant and resurrected. I felt I was in the grasp of his love. The Mass, the perpetually honored Blessed Sacrament and this awe-inspiring mosaic portraying Christ all made me feel welcomed and safe. I was at rest in Christ’s presence and God’s love.

I left the church and looked out onto Paris spread before me. I sat upon the steps that led up to the basilica and looked down at the city and contemplated my life and my faith, grateful to the God who created me.

It was there that I realized what I was meant to do: take what I had felt before the Blessed Sacrament and the mosaic of the Sacred Heart and bring it to those who can’t or won’t take those difficult, exhausting stairs. And so, I set out again to live my life and revel in God’s love. After all, if I hope to have the privilege of sitting beside God on the steps of Sacré-Coeur, as we both look out contemplating the world, I’ll first have to help others want to do the same.

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York.

Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre
35, rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre
75018 Paris

33 1 53 41 89 00

Planning Your Visit

Paris has a temperate climate. Summers are hot and a bit damp; the winters are also damp. Rain can be expected anytime. Masses on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart are hourly starting at 7 a.m. Hotels of various ratings dot the city, so it’s not important to find a centrally located one. The basilica also runs a guesthouse.

Getting There

Paris has an excellent subway system that is navigable without understanding a single word of French.

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