Bible Made in Brick

The 125th Anniversary of Sacred Heart Basilica, Notre Dame

by The Most Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, appearing in Volume 24

Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., gave the following homily at the celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame on July 16, 2013:

Everything about God is tremendous, and everything God does is extravagant! Our God is simply awesome. There is nothing meager about God. Think for just a moment about the miracle of creation. The universe is endlessly vast, almost beyond comprehension. There are countless galaxies of stars, scattered across the unbounded vacuum of space and time. Beside stars and quasars, planets and moons, asteroids and meteors, there is the dust of creation and the black holes of destruction. Our telescopes and satellites capture images of stunning beauty and fascinating complexity. And then there are the bugs and beasts, and that special beauty that Gerard Manley Hopkins once delighted to call “dappled things.” And also there’s us human beings, with our unique capacity for consciousness. You would have to be brain dead or as dull as a slug, not to feel wonder and awe before the spectacle of the material creation.

Sacred Heart Basilica at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Duncan Stroik.

But infinitely surpassing the glory of creation is the glory of the Creator. How does Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose painted image can be seen in the second spandrel of the East Nave, how does he describe the absolute singularity of God? The Angelic Doctor takes great pains to explain that God is ineffable. That means, God is incomparably greater than the capacity of our human language to either categorize or fully explain. God is in His essence, utterly beyond either similarity or difference. Because there is no kind of anything that God is. There is nothing in God that is not God Himself. That is why the endless mystery of God, echoed in the endless hunger of our humanity, is so captivating and fascinating. God is sheer existence, sheer being, sheer bliss. God is Who He is, or as God Himself reveals in the Third Chapter of the Book of Exodus: “I Am Who Am.” And this One True God, wondrously, is a Trinity of Persons. The Un-begotten Father speaks His Word, generating and loving His Only Begotten Son; the Son hears and loves and obeys the Father. And the Holy Spirit endlessly expresses this relational love among the Divine Persons.

Both creation and redemption come from this infinite plenitude of the Trinity’s inexhaustible love. For it was from that same super-abundance, that in the fullness of time, “the Word became flesh.” With amazing generosity, the Word was “tabernacle” among us. With astonishing condescension, the Word “pitched His tent” and made His “dwelling place” among us. Jesus, the perfect Image or Icon of the Father, reveals the splendor the Father’s love. Christ is the Sacrament of the Father, making visible the invisible glory of the Godhead. And the Church, the community of believers, is called to be the image or the icon of Christ, a living Sacrament that makes Christ present in this world, until He appears again in glory.

That’s why Catholics, despite some temporary bouts of iconoclasm or passing moments of spiritual amnesia, intentionally build glorious churches like this one. Catholic Christianity is sacramental and incarnational. That is the reason for this place. Down through the march of centuries and in the many and various changing styles of art and architecture, our churches are outward signs, material icons of inward spiritual realities, where the physical signifies the metaphysical. Glory and beauty are Divine attributes, and so believers of both the Eastern and Western traditions of Catholic Christianity have always tried to build churches as glorious and as beautiful as possible. Saint Francis of Assisi, whose image here is painted twice, once on a West Nave spandrel, and once more on the ceiling of the Lady Chapel, is rightly famous for his profound love of evangelical poverty. But in his own day, he was almost as infamous for his fierce insistence that poverty stop at the doors of the church. Folks often miss the sharp polemic of his witness against the heresies of his own era: the anti-sacramental Waldensians and the anti-material Albigensians. Along with his enthusiastic preaching of the Kingdom, his delight in the natural world, his direct service to lepers and to the poorest of the poor, Francis continued to collect stones to rebuild churches and chapels, almost until the very last year of his life. He certainly scandalized some folks, by spending a share of the money that he and his friars had begged, in order to purchase precious vessels, elaborate linens, and expensive sacred art, in order to glorify and beautify the House of God. For Francis and for so many of the Catholic saints that came before and after his time, what is spiritual and interior should be celebrated in this world by what is material and external. Consecrated Sacred Space signifies the beauty and glory of a “new heaven and a new earth,” in a world that is yet to come.

The decorative ceiling depicts the Four Evangelists, prophets and angels. Photo: Matthew Cashore, University of Notre Dame.

When Blessed Basil Moreau built the Conventual Church of Our Lady of Holy Cross in Sainte Croix, France, and when Edward Frederic Sorin built this church here in Indiana, they both shared that profound Catholic conviction that nothing was too good for the honor and glory of God. By 1869 here at Notre Dame, the Old Church was no longer large enough for the needs of the student body. In the spring of that year, the Provincial Council decided to build a new collegiate church dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Sorin rejected plans for a baroque church similar to “The Gesù” in Rome, as being simply beyond the means of the Congregation. Later there was another design for a gigantic, gothic church, most likely drawn up by Mr. J. Brady, a well-known architect from Saint Louis, Missouri. His drawings were also rejected, also because the church they envisioned was just too expensive. But the ever resourceful Brother Charles Borromeo, first “borrowed” those plans, extensively modified them, and then executed what became the design of the present church. It was Father Alexis Granger, Sorin’s great confidant, who was largely responsible both for the finance and decoration of Sacred Heart, in a process that was protracted over ten years.

Entrance doors to the east transept of the basilica. Photo: Matthew Cashore, University of Notre Dame.

Regarding the final result I would assert that few in our Notre Dame Family would disagree with Father Arthur J. Hope’s evaluation of Sacred Heart given in his celebrated history of the University: Notre Dame One Hundred Years. He enthusiastically extols: “The exquisite grace of its exterior and the lavish attention given to the decoration of its interior.” This church in its history variously named: the New Church, the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sacred Heart Church and now in these days, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is not a “Bible made in stone,” but is instead a “Bible made in brick,” indeed brick formed from the very clay of Saint Mary’s Lake [on the campus of Notre Dame]. Like all great Catholic churches, everything about Sacred Heart is both intentional and instructional. Luigi Gregori and his students did the paintings. The stained glass windows were imported from France. In this “House of God” on earth, there are vivid depictions of the “House of God” in heaven. When you look up, you see the stars, the prophets, and the angels. The saints in glory adorn the walls and the windows, beginning with Saint Rose of Lima, the first canonized saint from this hemisphere. The worshiping saints in eternity visually encircle us, the worshiping saints of time, in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. High over the sanctuary is Notre Dame our Mother, the type and symbol of the Church in glory, that most honored and revered title of this University, and the glorious patron of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Our Lady is depicted crowned, in prayer and rapture, beneath the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. The tabernacle tower above the high altar triumphantly presides over the sanctuary and depicts the New Jerusalem “coming down from heaven like a Bride.” Above is “the Lamb once slain but now living forever.” Within its enameled and bejeweled walls, with the surrounding images of twelve angels and twelve apostles, the Most Holy Eucharist is reverently reserved both for our ministry to the sick and for our constant adoration and devotion. Beneath the altar is a shrine of martyrs, who shed their blood for the sake of Christ. And finally, at the heart and center of this church, as in every Catholic church, is the altar of sacrifice, where the one perfect oblation of Christ on the cross is daily renewed in our midst, and where we are fed with the “Bread of Life,” that Bread that comes down from heaven to earth.

Stations of the Cross by Luigi Gregori, artist of the Household of Blessed Pius IX and Professor of Art at Notre Dame. Photo: Duncan Stroik.

125 years ago on the occasion of Father Sorin’s 50th anniversary of priestly ordination, this glorious church was gloriously consecrated. Most of the American hierarchy was in attendance, including my predecessor John Lancaster Spalding, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Peoria. At 6:00 am, Bishop Dwenger, the second bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, assisted by two other bishops, consecrated this church, in a liturgy closed to the public but open to the clergy, that lasted for three and one half hours. This building was washed with Holy Water, the altar and walls were anointed with the Most Holy Chrism, the sacred linens were laid on, and the candles all lit. To mark the places on the walls that were anointed are the consecration candles, that are still in place and lit today. At the same time as the church was being consecrated, Bishop Maurice Burke of Cheyenne, in ceremony very much like the Rites of Initiation, named, baptized, and anointed the bells of Sacred Heart’s great peal, including the eight ton bell named in honor of Saint Anthony. Next the doors were opened wide, and almost at once the church was filled with a capacity crowd. A procession began at 9:30 am for a Low Mass celebrated by Father Sorin. Pope Leo XIII had granted a special Plenary Indulgence to all who assisted at Sorin’s Jubilee Mass. Immediately following at 10:30 am, another procession began including all the prelates, visiting priests, and an army of Holy Cross priests that made their way into the sanctuary for a Solemn High Mass celebrated by Cardinal Gibbons. Haydn’s Third Polyphonic Mass was sung by a paid choir imported from Chicago.

The sermon was delivered by Archbishop Ireland of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Its topic was the growth of the Church in America and the important role Father Sorin had played. “He had accomplished so much with so little,” was the Archbishop’s tribute to Sorin’s great labor, deep devotion, and intense American patriotism. This Mass did not end until 12:30 in the afternoon. Basically all the ceremonies lasted for more than six and one half hours, on a hot August day, without any air conditioning or even any fans, with the clergy, religious, and many of the laity fasting from midnight, even from water. This was a worship extravaganza that might have tested even the legendary liturgical endurance of Father Peter Dominic Rocca, the current and rightly renowned Rector of this magnificent Basilica.

The day’s extended festivities included what was called a French Banquet, but where in a totally un-French manner, toasts were proposed and parched throats slated only with water. This was in the spirit of the Catholic Total Abstinence Society, which at that time was strongly supported, at least in public, by many of the bishops as well as by many of the Holy Cross Fathers, because of the so called “Irish failing.” They had temporarily forgotten a perennial cultural truth, rendered in verse only a few years later. The words of the lyric are: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” Let us hope, Reverend Father President [John Jenkins, C.S.C.], that on this festive day of anniversary, we remember that “we are ND” and that we are Roman Catholics and definitely not Southern Baptists.

The belfry of Sacred Heart Basilica. Photo: Matthew Cashore, University of Notre Dame.

All the outward signs of glory in any Catholic church and in the Rites of Consecration are intended to signify an inward vocation to holiness to which all the People of God are called. Believers are the living stones that build up the Church of God. Christ is the Head and we are His members, constituting His Body which is His Church. And if we allow this sacred space to do its work with us, there should always be the glorious evidence of our cooperation with God’s glorious grace. Remember all the Baptisms, Confirmations, and all the Holy Masses celebrated here. Remember the multitude of sins forgiven and personal conversions continued here. Remember the visits, the prayer, and adoration that this holy place invites. Remember the Marriages, the Ordinations, the sad funerals, joyful Jubilees, the blessing of new projects, and the end of special events, that have all taken place within this consecrated space. We all have our own personal stories of praying and feeling, and again and again discovering, the consoling and the challenging presence of our Good God. Because what goes on inside these walls, and inside the other more than 63 chapels of Our Lady’s School, is all for the sake of what should always be witnessed outside these walls, that is, living the Christian life of love and service. Notre Dame’s intentional extravagance in this place of worship embodies the University’s hunger for holiness, confidence in learning, and commitment to service. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the sacred steward of our best memories and the sacred inspiration for our most audacious dreams. Glory’s Mantle and Notre Dame’s Golden Fame are imprinted everywhere you look, in this house constructed for the honor and praise of Almighty God and for the blessing of God’s People.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Lady Chapel, by Luigi Gregori. Photo: Matthew Cashore, University of Notre Dame.

God is always the Master of His own House and the inherent holiness of this, His consecrated dwelling place. Notre Dame’s Basilica images the grandeur of the universe, because God fashioned the universe. This Basilica images the beautiful, because God is beautiful. This Basilica images God’s Holy Church because in this church the members of Christ’s Body are taken up through the celebration of the Mass into the very language and love shared by the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. This Basilica images the Communion of Saints, because we are all called to be saints, and all saints share a vocation to signify the goodness and the glory of God. This Basilica images God and God’s incandescent heaven, because our destiny is to see God face to face in the eternal splendor of heaven.

The altar in the Lady Chapel, fabricated by the school of Bernini. Photo: Duncan Stroik.

Right here, 125 years ago yesterday, on the Solemnity of the Assumption, the following majestic words of consecration were pronounced by Bishop Dwenger, I am sure, with some appropriate fear and trembling:

Be magnified, O Lord our God, in your holy place and show your presence in this temple which was built for you. According to your will, accomplish all things in your adopted children, and may you be ever glorified in your inheritance, through Christ our Lord. How awesome and terrible is this place! Truly this is the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven.

For the Congregation of Holy Cross and for the entire Notre Dame Family, may this deep conviction of our Catholic faith never be lost but ever be lived, affirmed, and gloriously celebrated!