“Papa, what’s that fancy church?”
My toddler likes to look at pictures of our wedding, especially as a stalling tactic ahead of naps and bedtime.
“That’s a very special church at Notre Dame, where Mama and Papa went to school. That’s also where Mama and Papa got married.”
“Oh. I like that special church.”
For generations of Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff, as well as hundreds of Holy Cross priests and brothers, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart has been a “special church,” the very heart of campus. Many alumni get married and return years later with a child to be baptized. Other alumni profess religious vows, and are ordained to be “men with hope to bring” to a world in desperate need of it. It’s from this church that all are sent into the world to proclaim the Gospel.
The Basilica is a place of sacramental memory. Indeed, you can’t enter one of its main entrances without walking by a place where sacraments are celebrated. At the main entrance, you’re greeted by the baptismal font, a reminder that where you enter the church, you enter the Church. In non-pandemic times, you can dip your hand into the font and bless yourself with the waters of Baptism and remember who you are: a beloved son or daughter of the Father.
If you enter through the transepts, you walk between two confessionals that have been the site of spiritual healings and restarts in the lives of tens of thousands of Catholics. We confess our sins with humble and contrite hearts and vow to make amends and avoid the near occasion of sin, before hearing the words our soul thirsts for: “Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
No matter where you enter, you know you’re on holy ground. As you look up and around, you can feel the presence and grandeur of God. I remember the first time I stepped through those Basilica doors. As a high school junior, I had the same reaction as my toddler: “This is a fancy church.” But in my years as a college student, the “fanciness” wore off as the physical space shaped my relationship to God and broadened my capacity to pray. In the stained glass, I’d see saints I’d read in my theology classes, a reminder that these holy men and women not only wrote but lived the Truth. In the paintings above, I’d gaze at key scenes from the life of Mary and Joseph and contemplate trying to raise a holy child.
But more than anything, my eyes would always end up drawn to the painted Cross with the words “Spes Unica” written on an unfurled scroll underneath. In this painting, Exaltation of the Cross, we see various figures of faith, from Moses to St. Patrick, centered around the Cross. I’d sometimes imagine myself entering into that holy space around the Cross, particularly in moments of difficulty and suffering, when I felt there was nowhere else to go. In this moment, I’d pray: “Jesus, I unite my suffering to yours on the Cross. Allow me the grace to carry my cross well.” Hail the Cross, our only hope.
Wherever you enter and whatever you see, the Basilica exists for liturgical worship, where the faithful hear the Word of God and receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. After we’ve seen all we can see, the altar beckons, inviting all those who labor and are heavy burdened to find rest in the Lord and strength for the journey. We receive Jesus, the person whose very self we put on in Baptism, who forgives us in the confessionals, who inspired the saints in the windows and on the walls and ceilings, who made the Cross holy. When we step into procession to receive the Eucharist, we enter a pilgrimage to the table of the Lord to receive the living God.
The Basilica is a “special church,” a pilgrimage site meant to be revisited. Whether we enter it full of joy or sorrow, hope or despair, we leave it having encountered a God in the splendor of the building and the sacred art, but above all, in the grace of the sacraments.
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