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France and the Cult of the Sacred Heart: An Epic Tale for Modern Times. (Reviews).

France and the Cult of the Sacred Heart: An Epic Tale for Modern Times. By Raymond Jonas (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2000. xxv plus 323 pp. $40.00).

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus atop Montmartre is considered a must-see site for tourists in Paris--if not for the gaudy edifice, certainly for its panoramic view. Very few who visit it, however, are familiar with the story behind the basilica or the devotion to which it is consecrated, and even many historians fail to understand why during the early years of the Third Republic the Sacred Heart was central to a cultural and political struggle over French national identity. In a masterful narrative that takes the reader to a number of integral episodes involving this Catholic devotion, Raymond Jonas illustrates how the Sacred Heart cult was closely bound to the fortunes of France between the apex of absolutism and the emergence of the belle epoque.

Jonas begins his survey of the Sacred Heart with Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, a Visitationist nun who did not initiate the devotion but nonetheless expedited it through revelation of her visions of Jesus in the 1670s. From there the author takes us to Marseille in 1720, when the plague returned to devastate Provence. Monseigneur de Belsunce, the bishop of Marseille and no stranger to Marguerite-Marie's message, consecrated his diocese to the Sacred Heart in an effort to appease an angry God. The entreaty worked; Marseille was spared and the consecration set a critical precedent. The devotion's next notable appearance came during the French Revolution, as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and oath crisis divided both Church and nation in two. The pantheonization of Voltaire, Jonas tells us, confirmed to refractory priests and their supporters that the Revolution was of impious origin. From there it was only a short jump to the Sacred Heart becoming the symbol of Counterrevolution among peasants of the west f ighting in the War of Vendee and royalist emigres quick to sacralize the martyred Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. As often was the case with all that was revolution (and counterrevolution), the devotion did not die. Indeed, the Sacred Heart gained the favor of Ultras during the Restoration, in spite of the government's advocacy of historical amnesia.

Jonas shows that perhaps the most crucial locus for devotion to the Sacred Heart was the annee terrible of 1870--71, during which not only France was invaded by Prussia and then internally afflicted by the Paris Commune, but also Italian unification was achieved at the expense of Pius IX's temporal power and the blood of French papal zouaves. The devotion was invoked in several instances for disparate purposes: to save the nation by way of expiation after the humiliating defeat at Sedan, to contextualize French volunteers fighting for the papacy with their Vendeen ancestors who had battled for the monarchy, to rally beleaguered French soldiers making a suicide attack against Prussian forces at Loigny. Shortly after the annee terrible conservative Catholic notables-many of whom sought the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy-proposed building a church to the Sacred Heart. National legislation helped acquire Montmartre and Paul Abadie's Romano-Byzantine design was selected in the subsequent architectural compet ition. The basilica's patrons led a fund raising campaign that guaranteed completion of the church, albeit over decades. Jonas concludes his tour of the Sacred Heart's history by revealing the meaning of the mosaics adorning the dome of the basilica and describing the changing political and cultural climate in which the structure was completed. The laicization of public schools, the failure of the ralliement, and passage of the Separation Law of 1905 (by which the basilica became municipal property), reinstated the counterrevolutionary character of the Sacred Heart cult, but this, combined with the death of the comte de Chambord, the last Bourbon heir, reflected the growing marginalization of French Catholicism.

Two aspects of this book make it a remarkable read. The first is the author's ability to elucidate the multifarious meanings of the Sacred Heart in relation to the cultural and political contexts in which veneration to it took place. For example, Jonas not only penetrates the spirituality of Marguerite-Marie, but also establishes why her message was so explosive: the seventeenth-century preoccupation with corporeality, the influence of Salesian spirituality among the Tridenrine clergy, the need of France to religiously differentiate itself from Catholic and Protestant enemies alike. In another case readers are shown how the basilica was intended as a counter-monument to a Paris perceived as decadent by the Moral Order or, as Jonas put it, "a monument in dialogic relationship with secular structures." The other outstanding attribute of this book is the style with which it is written. Jonas' narrative is witty, engaging, and affable. With much success he walks a fine line between scholarly jargon and patronizi ng colloquialism.

Nonetheless, at times this survey of the Sacred Heart seems to lose its way. Some of the incidents examined in the book are tangential, if not altogether superfluous, to the devotion. The interment of Voltaire at the Pantheon mentioned in the chapter on the French Revolution seemingly has little to do with the Sacred Heart itself; of much more import is the last part of this chapter, which describes how the devotion became a resistance symbol among nuns in western France who suffered persecution for repudiating the Civil Constitution f the Clergy. The massacre of Machecoul described in the next chapter was no doubt a decisive development in the Revolution and Counterrevolution, but readers are left to query how it was relevant to the Sacred Heart's legacy.

In spite of these fruitless detours, the survey reflects superior research, skillful organization, and impressive analysis. This contribution to the history of France is much welcomed, in no small part because Jonas successfully integrates political culture with cultural politics. In doing so, he guides us down a path of the French past at once complex and precise.
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Author:Woell, Edward J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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