It’s the Year of the Paris Olympics. Here Are the Catholic Must-Sees in the French Capital

The Olympic rings are seen in front of the Hotel de Ville City Hall in Paris March 14, 2023. The Olympics will take place July 26 – Aug. 11. (Photo: OSV News/Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters)

By Michael R. Heinlein, OSV News

(OSV News) — More than 15 million visitors are expected to descend upon the city of Paris this summer for the 2024 Olympics. The French capital will serve as the stage for over 300 events in 32 sports — including, for the first time, breakdancing — to test participants’ adherence to the time-honored Olympic creed: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”

For the people of faith hearing similarities to a portion of St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy in those words: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7), Paris can help inspire to grow bigger. With much more than Notre Dame to offer (the cathedral will only be reopened on Dec. 8 after the 2019 fire), the City of Light is full of Christian cultural heritage and icons.

While Notre Dame can still only be visited on the outside, the acting cathedral in Paris is St. Germain l’Auxerrois. Located centrally, near the Louvre, the gothic church currently houses the cathedral’s famous statue of Our Lady of Paris (Notre Dame de Paris) and also serves as the resting place of seventh-century St. Landry, one of Paris’ saintly bishops.

Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) — the onetime royal chapel of the residence of French kings until the 14th century, and now a museum — was once home to Christ’s crown of thorns. The chapel was built to enshrine the crown, brought from the Holy Land to France around 1240 by King Louis IX (1214-1270), now St. Louis. Sainte Chapelle’s world-famous 13th-century stained-glass windows make the chapel one of Paris’ most visited tourist attractions today.

Paris has had a long history of Catholicism, dating back to the third century and the time of the city’s first bishop, St. Denis, who legendarily carried his severed head — all the while preaching the Gospel — to his place of burial. The site of his martyrdom, and that of several companion martyrs of the early Parisian church, is located on Montmartre, indeed giving the mountain its name. The Church of St. Pierre de Montmartre, the second oldest existing church in Paris, is built on the site. It was also the place where St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier and their companions took the first vows of the Jesuit order in 1534.

The hallmark of Montmartre, seen across Paris at its summit, is the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. Construction on the church began in 1875, intended as an offering of reparation for France’s moral decline since the revolution and culminating with the defeat of France and the imprisonment of Emperor Napoleon III five years previously. Sacre-Coeur has kept perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament since 1885. The artistic centerpiece is a magnificent mosaic in the church’s apse titled “The Triumph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” featuring Christ at the center, with arms extended offering his golden heart to all. At either side is the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Michael, protector of France. St. Joan of Arc, patroness of France, is also there, offering to Christ his rightful crown as King of the Universe.

Catholics the world over are devoted to wearing the Miraculous Medal. And it was in a Paris alley off the Rue du Bac in 1830 that Our Lady appeared twice. During one of the apparitions, Our Lady asked St. Catherine Laboure (1806-1876) to see to it that the medal be struck. Mary also implored that the faithful come to the altar and pray, requesting graces from her maternal intercession, and she showed St. Catherine a gem-encrusted globe. Light shone from some of the gems. Mary described the gems that did not exude light as graces left unasked. The chapel is also the final resting place of St. Catherine and the co-foundress of the Daughters of Charity, St. Louise de Merillac (1591-1660). The heart of the congregation’s founder, St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), is also displayed in a reliquary there. His body is enshrined a brief walk away at the motherhouse of the Vincentian order he established, along with tombs of two other Vincentian martyrs: Sts. Francis Regis Clet (1748-1820) and John Gabriel Perboyre (1802-1840).

Another popular Parisian Marian shrine is Notre Dame des Victoires, built by King Louis XIII after the Catholic defeat of Protestant Huguenots in the French Wars of Religion, particularly in gratitude for the victory at La Rochelle in 1628. More than 37,000 ex voto plaques have been left in the church, displayed on its walls, in gratitude for favors attributed to the Blessed Mother. Among other famous pilgrims, a young St. Therese of Lisieux prayed there while discerning her vocation to Carmel, and the famous convert St. John Henry Newman went to give thanks for his conversion.

The Church of St. Etienne du Mont houses what remains of the relics of Paris’ patroness St. Genevieve — the fifth-century wonderworker and visionary who saved the city at various times from disaster before and after her death — after her original shrine and tomb were destroyed during the French Revolution. Also buried there is the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), subject of Pope Francis’ 2023 apostolic letter, “Sublimitas et Miseria Hominis,” Latin for “The Grandeur and Misery of Man,” published to commemorate the fourth centenary of Pascal’s birth.

The stains of the French Revolution continue to mark Paris and its toll on ecclesial life. In the crypt of St. Joseph des Carmes Church rests the victims of the 1792 September Massacres, from among the 191 martyrs beatified in 1929, among whom is St. Salomon Leclercq, canonized in 2016.

Other saintly relics enshrined in Paris include two 19th-century educators and foundresses: of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus St. Madeleine Sophie Barat (1779-1865), who is buried in the church of St. Francis Xavier; and of the Religious of the Assumption St. Marie Eugenie Milleret (1817-1898), who rests in a convent chapel in Auteuil.

Few other cities in the world can boast such ecclesial riches. And while it may only be possible for some to stroll through Paris virtually, it is still worth championing faith with its saints and architectural treasures while cheering during the Paris Olympics.