As my friend and I ascended the steps, the neo-Romano-Byzantine domes of the basilica appeared over the trees ahead, followed by the emergence of the great statue of Jesus Christ pointing to his heart with one hand and with the other blessing the city of Paris. And then, two figures of holiness and chivalric courage appeared, King Saint Louis IX and Saint Joan of Arc. We had reached the church that I had wanted to visit for over a decade, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris.
As I knelt to pray my rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, I was struck by the astonishing confidence required to build such a place. In 1789, France, the Church’s eldest daughter, declared herself no longer a disciple of Jesus Christ but an apostate. She banished the clergy from her lands, slaughtered the consecrated religious, confiscated church buildings and scribbled vacuous revolutionary slogans on their walls, and announced that Jesus Christ had no rights in the temporal arena. In mockery of the Holy Virgin, a prostitute was placed on a throne and carried through the streets to be installed at the centre of Notre Dame Cathedral and venerated as the ‘Goddess of Reason.’ The aristocracy and parish priests, those two great defenders of the Church, drawn from the lay and clerical orders respectively, were repeatedly crushed under foot by the new revolutionary State. Soon, this State emerged as the new god of the revolutionary era, which was to satisfy every man’s deepest longings as it authored a new civil society in its own image. It was not long before this Leviathan demanded a great blood sacrifice to confirm its deity. Again and again, the scaffolds were erected, heads rolled, and blood flowed. The Terror replaced the unbloody sacrifice of the Christian liturgy with the new human sacrifices offered to a State that had declared itself the true providential lord of all history, a history that it asserted had come to a close with the birth of the revolutionary epoch.
There were those who opposed the tide of revolution. The people of the Vendée, and the Chouannerie of Brittany and Maine, consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart and marched under its banner, also wearing an image of the Sacred Heart upon their chests. From then on, the Sacred Heart became the recurring symbol of all counter-revolution. Later, the counter-revolutionary Sanfedismo movement of southern Italy was consecrated to the Sacred Heart, as was the Tyrolean Uprising against Napoléon. The Carlist movement of Spain, which has long sought to defend the rights of the Church in the political arena, has always used the Sacred Heart as the image of its cause. In the 19th century, Gabriel García Moreno, founder of Ecuador’s Conservative Party, consecrated that country to the Sacred Heart before he was hacked apart by the machetes of Ecuador’s liberalist oligarchy.
In fact, the symbol of the Sacred Heart had emerged as a sign of counter-revolution even before the chaos in France. It may be argued that the first great revolt of the temporal power against the spiritual power in the Church was advanced by King Henry VIII of England. This met with a response in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a counter-revolution of nobles, burghers, peasants, priests, monks, and friars, who occupied whole English cities in the North and Midlands in an attempt to re-establish the proper order of the Church polity. The Pilgrims of Grace placed at the centre of their banner an image of the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. The revolutionary character of the King’s actions later caused Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, to compare ‘Harry the Eighth,’ whom he calls a ‘tyrant,’ to the Jacobins of his own age.
Napoléon, remembering the militias of the Vendée, remarked that had they marched on to Paris they could have easily undone the entire Revolution. The problem was that the Vendeans did not want power and prestige, but simply to be left alone to farm the land and work out their own salvation in the bosom of their parishes. After each victory, rather than marching on, the Vendeans turned back to return to their families. Therein is a key feature of the traditional-minded man: he is not interested in the political struggle as an end in itself but sees the political struggle as a mere means—and not an enjoyable means—to achieving what he deems really important, namely the humble project of making a home in this fallen world, sanctifying a small part of it that it may be pleasing to his Maker. For the revolutionary, however, life is the political struggle, an effort that can be abandoned only at the final eschatological triumph of the Machine of Modernity. Because the men of the Vendée did not dismantle that Machine, it returned to grind them up. A genocide ensued, as Vendeans were tied together and drowned in what the revolutionaries tellingly called ‘Republican marriages.’
The devotion to the Sacred Heart, Jesus Christ had told Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in one of her mystical visions a century before the outbreak of revolution, had been “reserved for the coming age of coldness.” As the rationalistic, Cartesian, geometric conception of reality was slowly transposed from the ‘new science’ into competing conceptions of political theory, appetite grew for written constitutions and a top-down, hyper-Statist settlement. Anyone found standing in the way of the great Machine would be offered to it in sacrifice.
It is hard for me to imagine the kind of confidence that would drive French Catholics, after such a diabolical rupture in their once glorious—albeit imperfect—civilisation, to build something like the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. It is as if those still loyal to the old religion one day turned to face their country and exclaimed: “You banished our priests, massacred the brides of Christ, broke up our families, drowned our fellow faithful, confiscated our churches, crushed our liberties, denied the rights of our Saviour and yours, and when we showed you the image of divine love you responded with fire; now, we will ascend Paris’s highest hill and there build a great church and consecrate it to that Sacred Heart at which you gnashed your teeth, and the whole city will have to look upon it and weep with shame.”
There, in that amazing church, I prayed for a renewal of counter-revolutionary confidence in the Church Universal. Such confidence ought not to be confused with triumphalism. The French who built Sacré-Cœur Basilica did not do so in a spirit of triumphalism, but of penance. We have little of which to boast. The Catholic Church, insofar as it can be viewed from its institutional, human aspect, is largely a festering mess of doctrinal dissent, moral and financial corruption, scandals of the most heinous and deplorable kind, and one riddled with petty clericalism and careerism. But as Saint Paul puts it, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Only in acknowledging our weakness can the healing work of Jesus Christ begin to work wonders, a work of grace from which the only true confidence can arise. As the great Machine of Modernity grinds to a halt, as it necessarily will, and probably sooner than we think, we must have the confidence to forsake all counterfeit saviours and rebuild on the only source of true strength: the Heart of the Incarnate Word.