Life & Soul

Fr Matthew Pittam : The building that inspired saints

I have just returned from a wonderful and eventful week in Paris where I was fortunate to stay only a few streets away from the basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. I had read a great deal about this well-known church before, but following this first visit I came away with a greater understanding of how such places can be beacons of hope in an increasingly aggressive secular culture.

The construction of the basilica was the initiative of Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury, who vowed to build a grand church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as reparation for secularism. They, alongside others, believed that France’s defeat by Germany in the war of 1870 had spiritual as well as political causes. France was partly occupied and the pope was effectively a prisoner in the Vatican as he could no longer be defended by French troops.

Land was made available for the basilica following the passing of a law in the French parliament declaring that construction was in the public interest. Funding largely came from donations, many from poor peasants, following collections throughout France. Therefore, from the beginning there was great public support for the basilica and recognition of the spiritual need to build something so prominent as an act of reparation. Today, carved in stone within the great church are the words of that vow which so many in France at that time were committed to upholding.

From its earliest years Sacré-Cœur brought inspiration and renewal. Notably, Charles de Foucauld and St Thérèse of Lisieux both visited the basilica and devoted themselves to the Sacred Heart while the building was still under construction. For many others this place was a catalyst for going on to do great things for God.

Today the building stands proudly, at times overwhelmed by tourists. However, the beating heart of the place is Perpetual Adoration which has continued unhindered by wars since August 1 1885.

In April 1944 the faithful persisted in keeping their watch before the Blessed Sacrament despite the windows being blown out in the bombing. In a world where so many things appear to be fleeting, the continuity of that gentle devotion and presence can have a prophetic message about the changelessness of God and his divine love rooted in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has appeared to have fallen out of fashion over the last few decades, and yet it was so key to the evangelisation, growth and renewal of the faith all over Europe. There was once a serious debate about placing an emblem of the Sacred Heart on the French Tricolour, and older generations will remember the familiar presence of a picture of the Sacred Heart in many of the homes of faithful Catholics. The devotion’s importance to the renewal and growth of the Catholic faith should not be underestimated. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the precipitous decline in the faith in Western Europe has been accompanied by the abandonment of such traditional devotions and religious practices.

Modern France is one of the most secular countries in Europe and many citizens would not now consent to the National Vow of Reparation which saw the construction of this inspiring building. For many it has become something of an embarrassment.

Yet the work of God continues in that prominent place, tugging at the nation’s conscience and gently calling her people back to lives of holiness. Sometimes in such secular times our best weapon and defence is striving for such holiness.

Reparation is not popular among Catholics today. Yet we have much to be penitent for, both within society and the Church. I return from my time away giving thanks that Sacré-Cœur continues to be faithful to its original vocation, but also reflecting upon how reparation and holiness need to feature in the task of renewing the Church in our nation.

Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of St Joseph, Monks Kirby. His new book is Building the Kingdom in the Classroom. Fr Dominic Allain is on holiday