The city of Barcelona occupies a plain surrounded by a natural amphitheater of hills and mountains, known as the Sierra de Collserola. Its highest point, more than 1600 feet above sea level, has been known as the Monte de Tibidabo since early Christian times. The name “Tibidabo” comes from the following passage in the Vulgate translation of the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 4 verse 6, in which the Devil takes Jesus up to a high mountaintop, and offers Him the rule of all of the kingdoms of the world if He will bow down and worship Satan: “…et ait ei tibi dabo potestatem hanc universam et gloriam illorum quia mihi tradita sunt et cui volo do illa” [emphasis added.] Fortunately for us, of course, Christ refused so to do.
While it may seem curious to many as to why the Catalans would think that this event took place in Barcelona, rather than in the Holy Land, local pride would have it otherwise. As James Michener points out in his travelogue “Iberia”, the way the Catalans see it, there would not be much of an effort for Jesus to stand on top of some arid mountain in Palestine and reject a swath of miserable, dusty desert. But if He stood on top of the Sierra de Collserola with a spectacular view of the lush green hillsides, vineyards, and fields, the beautiful port city, and shining Mediterranean Sea all below, and could reject THAT, then He truly was Divine.
In 1886, St. John Bosco was visiting Barcelona for several weeks, helping to organize the Salesian school and seeking funds to aid in the construction of a Shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus then being built in Rome. Some years prior to his arrival, a group of pious landowners had purchased the peak of Tibidabo and some of the land around it, in the hope of preserving of it from development and establishing some type of a Christian use for the site. When they learned about the shrine to the Sacred Heart being completed in Rome, they decided that building a similar shrine in Barcelona would be the perfect way to make use of the Tibidabo site.
One day Don Bosco paid a visit to the Basilica of La Mercè, which I have described previously on this blog, and following his visit he was approached by these gentlemen about the project. Apparently Don Bosco himself was stunned and touched by the offer for, as he told them during the meeting, when he left Turin for Barcelona he was thinking about the Sacred Heart project in Rome coming to an end, and was wondering whether he could encourage the construction of another Sacred Heart shrine in another city. Due to his enthusiastic encouragement of the project, funds were quickly raised to build a small, neo-Gothic hermitage on Tibidabo, which still stands today, until the design, fundraising, and construction of the shrine itself could be arranged.
It took the local Salesians some time to raise the funds for the construction, but the cornerstone of the present Expiatory Temple was laid by the Cardinal-Archbishop of Barcelona on December 28, 1902. Because of the difficulty in getting materials to the site, as well as the interruption of the Civil War, construction was not completed until 1951, in time for the 35th World Eucharistic Congress held in Barcelona in 1952. The bell towers that surround the central spire took another ten years to complete.
The top of the main tower is crowned by a 23-foot tall bronze statue of Jesus blessing the city below, which was placed in 1961, finally marking the completion of the project. An earlier and slightly smaller bronze had originally been made, but it was destroyed by the Leftists during the Civil War. On the occasion of the placing of the statue atop its peak, Pope John XXIII threw a ceremonial switch in Rome to mark the illumination of the statue, which can be seen all over the city at night, and simultaneously announced that he was raising the church to the status of a minor basilica.