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Paris pilgrimage: finding friendship and faith at Sacre-Coeur


Story and photo by Matthew Woolford

For most of my life, I have wrestled with the idea of friendship: What is it? How is it distinguished from other relationships? Do I have any friends to begin with?

I once asked a colleague, one with whom I have shared many deep discussions on religion, theology, and family-life, if, in her opinion, our interaction constituted a friendship.

This was a defining question to which she responded negatively. She then added that she saw herself as more of a mentor than a friend to me. I did not share her views but reflection on this conversation has brought me improved self-awareness. From where I stand, a mentor is anyone who brings clarity into another’s life. A friend is anyone who has a presence within it. This may be distinguished from socially or contractually imposed interactions, which I see as colleagueship.

In an apparent non sequitur, I remember my visit to Paris. That being written, it would have been remiss of me to go to Paris and not visit the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. As such, when Eurostar Train No 9080 disembarked at Gare du Nord on September 19, 2023, this was the first place I visited after dropping off my luggage at St Christopher’s Inn.

The sun was shining and the weather perfect for a stroll to Montmartre. I approached from the front steps, stopping ever so often to enjoy the view overlooking the city.

It was a fantastic welcome to Paris. The inside of the Basilica was just as beautiful and impressive as the outside. Just like St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, New York, the inner walls of the church are lined with altars to various saints for prayer, reflection, and devotion; each station amply supplied with candles for lighting and collection boxes for donations.

Open Eucharistic Adoration is ongoing in the nave of the church and is only halted for Mass. It is peaceful there and quiet, and a man could really get some thinking done.

That being written, it would have been remiss of me to be in Paris for the Feast of St Matthew and not celebrate his feast day at Sacre-Coeur Basilica. As such, when I checked-out of St Christopher’s Inn on the morning of September 21, this was the first place I visited, luggage in hand.

The rain was falling, and the weather less than ideal for a stroll through Paris. I caught a train that dropped me near to the Basilica. After walking up a small hill which I hoped would end with the Basilica, I saw another staircase before me. This time I was at the side-entrance.

The ‘prayer’ of St Teresa of Avila went through my mind: “Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”

A woman, on a journey like mine, looked at me and said something in French. I told her that I only spoke English. She translated, “No one said it would be easy!” I again look at the staircase and shouted, “A stairway to heaven!” She echoed the same in English.

After negotiating the staircase, I had to negotiate with the attendant at the door who told me that no bags were allowed inside. I then had to ask the shopkeeper outside the Basilica to keep my luggage for me. He did this free of charge and I had to insist upon him a token of appreciation which he eventually accepted.

Just as the priests were processing to the sanctuary, and just as I have so many times at the Community of Sacred Heart, Port of Spain on a Sunday morning, I made it inside just as the 11 a.m. Mass was about to begin.

Many times, at Mass at Sacred Heart, I have heard Fr Michael Cockburn explain that God has two wills: ‘He can either make something happen (a miracle), or He can allow something to happen (a disaster). But it is always for a Greater Good.’

As I reflected upon my second trip to Sacre Coeur, I realised that God allowed me to visit, not so much to show His friendship to me but to show me that just like St Teresa of Avila, I too am capable of being a friend to Him.

He allowed me to understand that I am strong enough to negotiate the ‘bad weather’ of my life and still be on time, that is, His time.

I also know that I am capable of being a friend to myself, and in my opinion, these are the two most important friendships anyone can have in his or her life.

So Sacred Heart, ‘What shall I render Thee, for all the gifts Thou has bestowed on me?’  (William J)