In times when the Catholic Church in particular, and religious institutions in general, are receiving a bashing, it is nice to see that some churches are still attracting young people in their droves, to celebrate life in their own inimitable way. Yes, they might never darken the doors of the church itself, but they gather in their hundreds outside on the steps to sing and celebrate. They come from many different countries and mix and mingle in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous churches. Everyone welcome. Everyone accepted.
This is what happens each evening on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Hundreds gather to sit on the steps and listen to impromptu concerts as enterprising buskers tout their CDs in the wake of their live performances. Hawkers sell bottles of Heineken at €5 a throw, still cold, despite the heat. There are no deals – perhaps they are all agents for a monopoly, or perhaps they have agreed amongst themselves, made a pact to get the most out of those who have forgotten that BYOB is de rigeur for this particular party.
Lots of people are drinking and yet no one is drunk. Perhaps this has something to do with the Cathedral looming in the background, banners hanging from its portals declaring that it has been open every day for 125 years. An amazing feat, given that I’ve often been hard pushed in Ireland and Hungary to find a church open mid-week.
Situated in Montmartre (the Mount of Martyrs), where worshiping of some sort or other has been going on since the Druids, the Sacre Couer dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that came into being as a result of a promise. Back in 1870, when France and Germany were at war (Germany won and partially occupied France as a result), two men – Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury – saw France’s troubles not as political but as spiritual. Their idea was to build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart in reparation. So they did. And it’s still there.
As the evening draws on, the lights in Paris switch on, one by one, gradually lighting up the city below. It’s a show not to be missed, free for all to see, and so compelling that many come back again, and again. The atmosphere is electric. It’s what church and religion should be – and sadly are not.
The only anomaly are the three security agents on patrol, dressed in combat fatigues, touting what guns that I imagine AK47s to look like. They walk in circles, constantly scouting 360 degrees, fingers on the triggers, ready for whatever comes their way. I wondered briefly whether this was a reaction to the recent terrorist attacks or whether it’s always been this way. I have no way of knowing. I would hope it’s reactionary and given time, will no longer be necessary. But perhaps, that too, is a sign of changing times.
This week, a week where patience (a limited commodity in my world on a good day) was tried and tested, where frustrations at my own inabilities ran high, and where self-berating was the order of the day, I’m glad of this memory. It was a lovely evening, on a lovely weekend, a weekend when I got to know Paris a little better and was big enough to admit that I was wrong about her.