Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre, Paris, France


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Mystery Worshipper: Ultracrepidarian and Ecumaniac
Church: Sacré-Cœur
Location: Montmartre, Paris, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 April 2010, 6:30pm

The building

An impressive Romano-Byzantine basilica, reminiscent of Santa Sophia or St Mark's Venice. The cornerstone was laid in 1875 and the basilica was completed by 1914, although its consecration was delayed until after World War I. It is constructed of travertine stone rich in calcite, thus ensuring that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution. The portico features three arches flanked by equestrian statues of Joan of Arc and King Louis IX. A mosaic in the apse, entitled Christ in Majesty, is among the largest in the world. It depicts Christ, with arms outstretched, his Sacred Heart emblazoned in gold, attended by angels, saints, bishops wearing mitres, and a pope wearing his tiara and holding the world up to him, literally soaring in the dome above the high altar.

The church

The basilica shares the summit of Montmartre with two communities of nuns: a group of Benedictines and a group of Carmelites. The Benedictine nuns appear to be very active in the life of the basilica and several were present at this service. Another special feature of the basilica community is its history of eucharistic adoration. The Blessed Sacrament has been exposed for perpetual adoration in a monstrance over the high altar continually since 1885 (before construction was even finished). There is a continuous vigil of people praying before the exposed host.

The neighborhood

The basilica is located on top of Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris. On a clear day its white triple-domed structure is visible against the sky from most vantage points in Paris. Legend has it that St Denys, the first bishop of Paris, was martyred there by decapitation. The legend goes on to say that Denys picked up his severed head and walked happily for several miles with it, preaching a sermon as he went.

The cast

Unfortunately, we were not able to discover the name of the priest who celebrated and preached, or that of the enthusiastic nun who led the singing.

What was the name of the service?

Messe (Mass).

How full was the building?

The seating area for people taking part in the service was decently full. We weren't squeezed in like sardines, but there weren't very many spare seats. In addition, a constant stream of tourists moved around the periphery of the basilica.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A kindly looking nun in full habit gave us a service sheet. Other than that, we were pretty much left to our own devices.

Was your pew comfortable?

Pretty standard as pews go. It wasn't conducive to sleep, but I didn't feel sore when I got up.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was the murmur of tourists in the background, occasionally hushed by the people near the door. On the whole, the atmosphere in the main part of the church was quiet and expectant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A Benedictine nun (again in full habit) who served as cantor and worship leader throughout sang: "Jours de Résurrection! Rayonnons de joie, rayonnons de joie!" (This is Eastertide! Be radiant with joy, be radiant with joy!)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Only the service sheet, which had the text of the sung parts of the service and the readings. Other congregational responses (e.g. responses during the eucharistic prayer) were recited from memory.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ (very well played and never intrusive), a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument originally built for a private home. The organ was unusual for its time in that it employed 61-note manuals and a 32-note pedalboard, which had not yet become standard.

Did anything distract you?

I expected to be irritated by the tourists around the basilica, but they were just a background hum that was easy to ignore. More distracting was the splendid mosaic on the interior of the main dome. It kept drawing my eye away from the main action of the service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship style was what you would expect from a major Catholic church or cathedral: more formal than intimate, but not overly uptight. The nun leading the service had a lovely voice. In an attempt to conduct us, she would wave her arms vigorously when it was time for the congregation to sing. However, most of the pew-fodder responded in true Catholic fashion by ignoring her encouragements and murmuring inaudibly.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The priest spoke slowly and clearly, but with character and animation when appropriate. All of this was very handy to me, trying to understand the sermon with my underused schoolboy French!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It being Divine Mercy Sunday, he spoke on the theme of mercy. Mercy is more than just a pardon from God. In order to live a life truly touched by mercy, it is necessary to show mercy toward others, drawing on the power that is revealed through the love of Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Gazing up at the mosaic of Christ and his Sacred Heart while singing the Gloria. It truly a sight to behold. I felt very Eastery!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The service sheet was all in French except for one sentence that was tersely translated into English: "Only persons baptised in the Catholic Church may come forward to receive communion." Call me overly sensitive, but the impression I got was that guarding the Sacrament against blundering anglophone Protestants is a much more pressing concern than helping English-speaking visitors to understand the service. They should either leave the line about receiving communion untranslated, or translate substantially more.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

It wasn't really the sort of place where people come up and talk to you. Apart from being pestered for money at the door on the way out, we touristes anglais weren't paid much attention to.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Non-existent (unless there was a coded message in French explaining where it was being served).

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I personally prefer smaller parish communities over basilica/cathedral worship; there is a better chance to get to know people. That said, the preaching was very good and it would certainly improve my French!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. It was great to worship in an unfamiliar language but a familiar structure and so feel united with Christians around the world.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The singing nun and her animated attempts to get the congregation to join her.

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