A Pilgrim In Paris
Every traveler must step outside the guidebook, and the serious traveler just throws it away. Though guidebooks range from text-heavy Michelin Guides to pocket-sized DK Top-10 books, none can match the individuality of any traveler exactly, except the tourist with a checklist. But the serious traveler seeks meaning beyond the mere experience of the place, tears out the maps, and leaves the rest of the book behind.
At least I have found it so. For more than a decade I enjoyed frequent visits to Paris, accompanying my husband on business trips that left me alone to explore the city; we also went on a few vacations there. After completing the tourist’s checklist from Frommer’s guidebook the first time, I began to search for something more during each visit. While Paris, like all of France, is officially secular, her Laïcité does not obscure the objective reality of a religious past, including Gothic glories of the “Age of Faith,” great saints through the ages, and wondrous art and architecture. That reality was all around me, in the street names, the churches, and the saints; so I explored it as a pilgrim—looking for the Faith in Europe today. We are fortunate we have so much to find, because the French Revolution sought to destroy Catholicism in the late eighteenth century—and there have plenty of other attempts since then.
The Revolution and De-Christianization
The Incorruptible Maximilien Robespierre and the Reign of Terror led a campaign to excise Christianity from French culture. The revolutionaries were acting on the Enlightenment philosophes’ verbal attacks on the Catholic Church, regarding it as an ally of the old regime. The National Constituent Assembly of France seized all Church property, suppressed convents and monasteries, and forced priests to serve as employees of the State, swearing an oath to the Revolution while denying loyalty to the Pope. The Blessed Sacrament was desecrated, church furnishings and artwork wrecked, and churches destroyed in a massive campaign of iconoclasm. More than 200 non-juring priests and three bishops—those who would not take the required oath—were brutally massacred in Paris on September 2 and 3, 1793. The Carmelites of Compiègne, the Ursulines of Valencienne, and nuns from other religious orders were guillotined as enemies of the Revolution.
Other steps in the dechristianization of France were to eliminate the Gregorian calendar, the seven-day week, the Sunday day of rest and worship; change any street or city name with a religious reference; and ban Holy Days and saints’ feasts. A new calendar began with Year I of the new Republic. Nevertheless, the Church survived the Reign of Terror and Napoleon signed a Concordat that at least restored some rights to the Church.
Our Lady in Paris
I must start with Mary, the Mother of God—Notre Dame. More than two dozen churches in Paris are dedicated to her, and all of the churches in the city feature at least one statue of her, usually holding an infant Jesus. The Cathedral of Notre Dame standing on the Ile de la Cité in the Seine River is the most famous of all the churches dedicated to Our Lady in Paris.
This Gothic cathedral draws tourists of all religious beliefs, or none, to its doors. Our highlight has been attending Sunday morning prayer and the “Messe Gregorienne” with sonorous Latin chants and clouds of fragrant incense. Yet there’s the changing fortune of the cathedral to consider, even as the tourists mill around outside the nave. Desecrated during the French Revolution, Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason and then the Temple of the Supreme Being, adapted for Robespierre’s deist festivals and rituals, with a goddess of Liberty replacing Jesus and Mary.
Restored after Napoleon’s Concordat with the Vatican in time for the Emperor’s coronation ceremony, it fell into disrepair until Victor Hugo’s historical novel Notre Dame de Paris and the Romantic Movement’s fascination with the medieval era inspired new interest. Architect Viollet-le-Duc labored almost 25 years to restore Gothic glory to the cathedral, including the stone row of Old Testament kings the revolutionaries removed and beheaded, thinking they represented French monarchs.
While Notre Dame de Paris has been at the center of national life on several occasions, including the beatification of Joan of Arc in 1909, the Liberation of Paris in 1944, and several state funerals, she is also an emblem of the strange and strained relationship between the Church and the state; the Cathedral and the City. The City of Paris owns the Cathedral, the Archdiocese of Paris maintains and uses the Cathedral; France is officially secular with the separation of Church and State enshrined in law with the 1905 declaration of Laïcité. Notre Dame has been the site of protests for and against the French law changing the definition of marriage—but there was also a great celebration in March 2013 when a new set of in-tune bells replaced those melted down for cannon balls and coinage during the French Revolution. The building is in great need of repair, however, and a fund-raising campaign was launched this year.
St. Joan of Arc is one of the patron saints of France and every church in Paris contains a statue honoring her. She often stands in chapels containing the carved names of all the World War I dead of the parish, demonstrating the devastation of the Great War. In contrast to these statues, which depict the visionary armored saint in prayer, three equestrian statues throughout the city recall her military exploits during the Hundred Years War: outside the huge right bank church of St. Augustine; in a square near the Tuileries Gardens, and above the portico of the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur at Montmartre.
St. Geneviève is one of the patron saints of Paris. Like St. Joan of Arc she protected Paris, urging the inhabitants to fast and pray to avert the attack of Attila the Hun in the fifth century. In the eighteenth century King Louis XV began to build a great new church in the Latin Quarter of Paris in her honor after being healed through her intercession. By the time the church of St. Geneviève was ready for consecration, however, the French Revolution was in full swing. The leaders of the revolutionary assembly turned the church into a mausoleum and monument to the great heroes of the Enlightenment, like Voltaire and Rousseau. They named it the Panthéon, a temple for all the gods. After the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in the nineteenth century, it was finally dedicated as a church.
With the fall of the restored Bourbon monarchs later that century, the church again became the national necropolis for heroes. Next door to the Panthéon, however, is the magnificent church St. Étienne-du-Mont, which includes a chapel containing the relics of St. Geneviève. The chapel is filled with ex-votos thanking Jesus, Our Lady, and St. Geneviève for health and healing. (And St. Étienne has the only surviving rood screen in Paris.)
St. Denis, holding his head, is another constant presence in the churches of Paris, and Abbot Suger’s great Gothic basilica is well worth the metro ride to the commune of St. Denis, which has the extraordinary tombs of French kings and queens. But there are other saints to honor: great humanitarians like St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac, and Blessed Frédéric Ozanam; visionaries like St. Catherine Labouré, early saints like St. Germain of Auxerre—visiting any church in Paris reminds me that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
Expiation and Adoration
No visit to Paris, for the tourist or the pilgrim, would be complete without a ride up the funiculaire of Montmartre to the glowing white Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Built of travertine marble, paid for by public donations, the basilica was designed as a symbol and site of reparation after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War that led to the fall of the Second Empire, the foundation of the Third Republic, and the horrors of the Paris Commune of 1870. Its façade features equestrian statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Louis, the Crusading King, while Jesus stands reigning in glory in the mosaic above the Altar, surrounded by Our Lady and many French saints.
While its architecture and furnishings are stunning and its ushers are stern, the basilica serves a very special purpose. Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has been continuous at Sacré-Cœur since 1885, uninterrupted by two world wars. Someone has been adoring Jesus, present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist for 132 years at Sacré-Cœur—no wonder the ushers tell men to take off their hats, people with cameras to put them away, and those improperly dressed to cover up.
“Bon Dimanche à Tous”
Finally, some observations about Sunday Mass and Sunday in Paris: as I mentioned before, we’ve often attended the Gregorian Mass at Notre Dame, and have been heartened by the congregation’s singing of the Latin parts of the Mass. We have also attended Mass at Sacré-Cœur, in the chapel of the Irish Cultural Center, and even outside Paris at St. Germain-en-Laye. During our most recent visits to Paris, we attended Sunday Mass at a nineteenth century Gothic treasure in the ninth arrondisement, St. Eugene-Ste. Cécile. This parish celebrates both the Novus Ordo in the vernacular and the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite of the Roman Liturgy daily and on Sunday. The Schola Sainte Cécile provides the chant and performs other traditional hymns, and the church was full at the 11 a.m. Mass we attended, with many carefully dressed young people in the congregation and many strollers in the aisles. After Mass and the glorious organ solo, we lit a couple of candles, took a few pictures, and exchanged the greeting of “Bon Dimanche” with many in the congregation who also gathered on the pavement in front of the church.
Sunday in Paris, even for those who do not worship, is a day of rest and leisure. People stroll through the parks, relax in cafés for long lunches, and generally take it easy. It’s a day for culture and museums, family and friends. Almost all the shops are closed, except in the Marais (the Rue de Rosiers area) and the underground Louvre mall—otherwise Parisians observe Sunday more truly than we, at least, often do at home in the U.S.A.
These observations I admit are anecdotal, and based on a visitor’s impressions, but they gave us hope for Europe and the Faith. We will never forget the rainy day when we came up from the Metro near Place St. Michel and found a group of pro-lifers standing in front of the Fountain St. Michel, praying the Rosary and holding signs against abortion—even a poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe! As we joined them in praying, “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous. . . , ” we knew we had found the Faith alive and well in Paris, standing up for the unborn while the great Archangel defended us in battle.