Stage 1: at the foot of the Butte Montmartre (Anvers metro station)
The Basilica of the Sacré Cœur is located at the summit of the hill of Montmarte, on the right bank of the Seine.
To reach the Basilica one must climb 270 steps, from the top of which there is a magnificent panoramic view of Paris including Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon, the Opera house, Montparnasse Tower and the Pompidou Centre. On this spot, at the beginning of the 3rd century, the first Christians of Paris with their bishop Saint Denis, the priest Saint Rusticus and the deacon Saint Eleutherius were martyred, giving the hill its name “Mount of Martyrs”.
Throughout the centuries Montmartre has remained a major place of prayer. For almost seven centuries preceding the French Revolution, a large Benedictine abbey, a centre of intense spiritual life, was located here. Pilgrims from near and far have always flocked to Montmartre.
- Interview with the Rector, Father Jean Laverton:
- Question: Can you tell us about some of the religious figures attracted to Montmartre?
- Father Laverton: “In this place where the first Christians were martyred, near this major abbey, major figures have indeed succeeded one another for centuries. Several kings of France and also major saints: St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Joan of Arc, who came here to pray during the siege of Paris, St Vincent de Paul, who founded the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor people of the capital, St Ignatius Loyola, who on 15 August 1534 together with St François-Xavier and some of their companions, made the vow creating the Society of Jesus. More recently, on 6 November 1887, at the time the Basilica was being built, a young girl from Normandy, Thérèse Martin, came here on a pilgrimage with her father Louis and sister Céline, on her way to Rome to seek permission from Pope Leo XIII to enter the Carmelites at the age of 15. She later became the saint known all over the world as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.” Today the Basilica is a place of continuous spiritual life, an indispensable stop for sightseers and spiritual visitors to Paris. 11.5 million people visit the Basilica every year, but few of them know what makes the place so special. Let us continue our pilgrimage to find out.
Stage 2: on the forecourt of the Basilica
At the front of the Basilica, in the central niche, Christ welcomes us, blessing the city with His right hand and pointing to his heart with His left hand.
The term “Sacred Heart” denotes the Heart of Jesus, who for Christians is the son of God made man. Thus in the human heart of Jesus Christians contemplate the infinite love of the heart of God. Throughout His life, Jesus constantly revealed this love of God for mankind, going so far as to allow His heart to be pierced on the Cross. This sign of the open heart, by which He made himself recognizable to His disciples after the Resurrection, is omnipresent in the sculptures, stained glass windows, statues, bas-reliefs and mosaics of the Basilica. It displays the infinite love of God given to all mankind and calls upon us in turn, while entering the Basilica, to open our hearts to receive this love.
The construction of the Basilica was the realisation of a vow pronounced by the French parliament after the military defeat of 1870. Two young men, Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury, who were close to Frédéric Ozanam and the Conference of Saint Vincent de Paul, initiated the vow. In those troubled times, they sought to offer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus a church that would be consecrated to Him, as a sign of spiritual renewal, hope and trust. Beneath the apse mosaic by Merson and Magne (at 475 square metres one of the largest in the world) depicting Christ with arms extended, an inscription recalls this vow: “To the Sacred Heart of Jesus, France fervent, penitent and grateful.”
- Interview with Father Laverton:
- Question : Can you say a few words about the architecture of the Basilica?
- Father Laverton: “On 28 July 1874, after the vote in the French Parliament the previous year declaring that ‘the construction of a church on the hill of Montmartre was in the public interest’, the famous architect Paul Abadie won the competition out of 78 designs submitted and exhibited at the Palace of Industry on the Champs-Elysées. The construction was funded by national subscription, an outpouring of generosity from throughout France and beyond, attested to by the numerous inscribed stones in the Basilica. The exterior travertine stone, known as ‘Château-Landon’ (also used to build the Arc de Triomphe), comes from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarry in Seine et Marne and is particular in that it is extremely hard with a fine grain and exudes calcite on contact with rainwater, making it white. This whiteness recalls the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is the profound spiritual life of the Basilica.”
Stage 3: Entrance to the Dome and Crypt
Access to the Dome and Crypt is outside the Basilica on the left. While passing in front of the bronze door at the bottom of the steps on your right, you can see the foundation stone laid by Cardinal Guibert on 16 June 1875.
- Interview with Father Laverton :
- Question : It seems the Basilica is built on stilts?
- Father Laverton: “That is correct. Construction problems were encountered at an early stage. The quarries in the ground underneath the site made it unsuitable for supporting the building and 83 pillars to a depth of 33 metres had to be built to reach solid rock. Construction lasted over 40 years. Delayed by the First World War, the consecration of the Basilica by the Papal Legate finally took place on 16 October 1919.” In the Crypt one can see, in the Pieta Chapel, the tombs of Cardinals Guibert and Richard as well as a memorial monument to Cardinal Amette, an urn containing the heart of the initiator of the National Vow, Alexandre Legentil, relics of martyrs, a monument to the priests, nuns and seminarists killed during the two World Wars. Walking around the ambulatory you will come to the altar of Saint Peter, surmounted by a statue of the Sacred Heart with arms extended, as represented by Blessed Charles de Foucauld in in his drawing in the chapel of Béni-Abbès in Algeria. In 1887 Saint Theresa and her father Blessed Louis Martin attended a Mass in this chapel to mark the departure of their pilgrimage to Rome and devoted themselves to the Sacred Heart. On returning from this pilgrimage, Saint Theresa sent her gold bracelet for the making of the Basilica’s celebratory monstrance. After climbing the 300 steps to the top of the Dome, at a height of 83 metres, you can see the Bell Tower that houses the famous Savoyarde, one of the largest bells in the world. With a tone of low C it weighs 19 tonnes (Big Ben is 13.76 tonnes and Great Paul in Saint Paul’s Cathedral is 17 tonnes). It was donated by Savoy (in the French Alps) and blessed by Cardinal Richard on 20 November 1895. On Sundays and Holy Days the Savoyarde is rung for 11 o’clock mass and 4 o’clock vespers.
- Interview with Father Laverton:
- Question: The Savoyarde can be heard from far away and the Dome of the Basilica is visible from Orly and Roissy airports, from the Saint Lazare, North and East railway stations and from many streets in Paris.
- Father Laverton: “And at the top of the Dome, the Basilica lantern is lit every night, showing that there is always somebody praying in this sanctuary. It shines like a lighthouse to give hope, strength and courage to all who see it. Many people tell us that when they see this light they have a sense of communion with God.”
Stage 4: At the foot of the Basilica (in front of the exit)
Above the door on the right, a figure with an immense ear is watching you. He is preparing us to enter the sanctuary, which is a place of silence, prayer and contemplation.
The Basilica of the Sacré Coeur is designed as a treasure chest to display to the world the Body of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the consecrated Host.
On entering, our gaze is drawn by the apse mosaic, above the high altar. This is surmounted by the ciborium where a large white Host consecrated by the priest during mass is displayed in the monstrance. This is the real presence of Christ among us, Lord Jesus who arose from the dead.
In the nave, men and women have taken it in turn day and night without interruption since 1 August 1885 in a silent prayer of adoration for the Church, for the world and for peace. This makes the Sacré Coeur a place of daily life and faith.
- Interview with Father Laverton
- Question: What purpose does this prayer serve?
- Father Laverton: “From the top of the Basilica, when the doors are open on the great city of Paris, the Sacred Body of Christ, given up in this love than which none is greater, is there, displayed and given to all without reserve, offered up to call us to this place where, in the interior dialogue of prayer, He seeks to draw our presence to His presence, to establish His life in us. In the prayer of perpetual adoration, the hold world is brought before God by those who pray”.
- Question: In the Basilica there is a plaque with a speech by John Paul II where he speaks of this vocation of the Basilica.
- Father Laverton: “Yes, Blessed Pope John Paul II came to Montmartre after the vigil with young people at the Parc des Princes stadium during his first visit to Paris on 1 June 1980, to take part in this great uninterrupted chain of prayer. When leaving, he confided ‘I confess that this visit is a privileged moment for me and will be so for the rest of my life.’ Even before then, Blessed John XXIII, when he was Papal Nuncio in Paris from 1944 to 1953, loved to come here and celebrate the Mass for peace each New Years’ Eve".
- Question: You mentioned a prayer day and night, but the Basilica is closed from 10.30 p.m. to 6 a.m.
- Father Laverton: “Correct. Every evening, after mass at 10 p.m., the doors close. But inside, prayer continues. People from all over the world take part in the nightly adoration. They sleep in the guest house of the Basilica. Everybody can come. All one needs to do is register in advance by phone or online.” In the entrance to the Basilica you will see the stained glass window depicting Blessed Charles de Foucauld who loved to pray here in the silence of the night. During the day, the perpetual prayer is punctuated by the celebration of masses and the singing of psalms by the Benedictine Sisters of the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre. On Sundays and Holy Days, these liturgical offices are accompanied by the grand organ, the last instrument built (in 1898) by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and considered to be one of the most remarkable in Europe.