«Pour lui, partir au moment où il célebrait la messe, c'est une forme de consécration...».
I awoke this morning to the horrific news of the attack in the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray by Islamist militants who invaded a Catholic church in the midst of daily Mass, taking the faithful hostage and murdering an eighty-five-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel. Though the Church has formal processes for declaring these things, I would not hesitate to say that Father Hamel died a martyr, killed as he celebrated Mass by attackers motivated by a hatred of the Catholic faith. In this context, I was particularly struck by these words spoken by a fellow priest who knew Father Hamel:
Malgré son âge avancé, il était toujours aussi investi dans la vie de la paroisse. On lui disait souvent, en rigolant «Jacques, tu en fais un peu trop, il serait temps de prendre ta retraite». Ce à quoi il répondait , en riant, «tu as déjà vu un curé à la retraite? Je travaillerai jusqu'à mon dernier soufflé». Pour lui, partir au moment où il célebrait la messe, c'est une forme de consécration, malgré les circonstances dramatiques.Though he surely did not expect to die as a martyr, there is a sense in which Father Hamel's tragic death represented the fulfillment of his priestly vocation; as he wished, he labored until his final breath in offering the sacraments. His death also offers a sobering lesson, as Father Ray Blake tersely stated today: "This is what the priesthood is about. This is what the Mass is about. This is what the Catholic Church is about."
(In spite of his advanced age, he was still deeply engaged in the life of the parish. People often said to him, jokingly, "Jacques, you're doing a bit too much. It's time for you to retire." To which he used to reply, laughing, "Have you ever seen a retired parish priest? I'll work until my final breath." For him, to die while celebrating Mass was a form of consecration, in spite of the dramatic circumstances.)
We live in an age of Christian martyrs, with regular reports coming from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere of bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople murdered for their faith. I've written here before about the "ecumenism of blood," the sense in which the death of Christians in other parts of the world and of other Christian confessions should perhaps lead complacent Westerners to think more carefully about the meaning of Christian solidarity and about how they live out their faith. Picking up on this theme today, political scientist Bradley Jensen Murg asks whether the shocking death of Father Hamel might lead Christians in the West to think differently about their relationship with suffering Christians elsewhere:
Jewish institutions in Europe have regularly been targets of extreme violence, with the climate of anti-Semitism becoming so marked that the Jewish Agency has reported significant increases in the number of French Jews making aliyah to Israel. A direct attack on a Catholic church and Catholic clergy in Europe is a new and horrid addition to this history of religious violence. In high-income Western states we tend think of these things as "something that happens to other people" (or, to other people's priests). One hundred million Christians around the globe are recognized as living in a state of persecution for their faith – but we rarely experience it close to home.To read the rest, click here. As we seek a way forward in the wake of horror, let us seek the intercession of the martyr Father Jacques Hamel as we ask God for the prudence and wisdom we need to respond to attacks on our faith and on our very well-being. Let us also pray that the goodness and dedication which Father Hamel showed in his life of priestly service will not be forgotten in a time of fear and uncertainty, and that he will be remembered for the way he lived as well as the way he died. AMDG.
If our response is to be constructive, it must begin with the understanding that "a church of martyrs" is the reality we confront today. And that reality is one that also provides a small sliver of consolation in that, as Pope Francis stated in his meeting with the Ethiopian Patriarch earlier this year: "The ecumenism of the martyrs is a summons to us, here and now, to advance on the path to ever greater unity." This attack on the Church in France can help to connect those of us in the West to the suffering of our co-religionists for whom these events are so horridly normal.