For many priests, at all sorts of levels, there is something unique and personally awesome about the experience of saying Mass. Priests sometimes reflect that being able to do this is the reason above all why they have become priests; some might think that to die at the end of saying Mass, is perhaps the ideal way to die.
But there is something particularly shocking about a priest being killed while celebrating Mass – this is part of the significance of the martyrdom of Blessed Oscar Romero in March 1980. So it was that the killing just over a year ago, on 26 July 2016, of an elderly priest in Normandy who too was saying Mass with a small week-day Mass congregation, seemed to be uniquely shocking. Of course we need to be careful – while it does shock us because of what we believe about the Mass and about priesthood, we all know that many deaths, every day, are more horrific. A year on it is good to reflect on what happened.
Jacques Hamel was born in the Norman town of Darnétal in 1930. After a conventional education and a short spell doing military service, he trained for the priesthood and was ordained for the archdiocese of Rouen in 1958. After serving in various parishes his last assignment as parish priest was in the town of Sainte-Etienne du Rouvray, where he remained resident after his retire-ment. He was killed by two knife-wielding men, supporters of the ‘Islamic state’, who also took hostages from the congregation until they were shot by police.
The significance of his death can be seen on at least two levels. First and foremost, the Church has been clear from the beginning that he needs, like Blessed Oscar Romero, to be seen as a martyr. He was killed because of ‘hatred of the faith’, so the pope has speeded up the beatification and canonisation processes. Père Hamel is thus like all the martyrs of the history of the Church; he is also alongside countless others killed for being Christians (particularly in the Middle East), of whom we are more aware than in the past because of modern communications. Of course, we also need to remember that martyrdom for the Christian is an example of Christ’s triumph over evil: when we honour saints who were martyred (and Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in P. Hamel’s honour as a martyr not long after the killing took place), these observances are joyful, not carried out in mourning.
We know from the early Church that one of things which really bewildered the Roman authorities was this evident rejoicing at the killing of one of the Christian number. The real threats to life which we see should make us careful about claiming in Great Britain that we are persecuted. It is disturbing that sometimes Christians – particularly in affluent countries where there is no serious threat to the faith except apathy – react with outrage and anger to killings like that of P. Hamel, even seeking retaliation, oblivious of the fact that Our Lord told his followers to expect persecution and to ‘rejoice and dance for joy’ at its arrival.
The second thing to remember is that P.Hamel had been a strong supporter of good interfaith relations in northern France. He had worked closely with the president of the local council of Muslims in Normandy and made available disused Church land to the local mosque. For religious extremists such as the men who killed him, not only was his Christian faith a threat, so was his commitment to reconciliation, to mutual understanding with Muslims and members of other faiths, to good relationships. This is important because to be honest many Catholics, eager to acclaim P. Hamel as a martyr, don’t really believe in or value these things either, in spite of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the actions in particular of St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis since then. There are still anti-Muslim attitudes in our community which are at odds with Church teaching.
Extremists like the young men who slit P.Hamel’s throat want there to be more division and enmity between Christians and Muslims. The best way we can honour martyrs like him is to be true to his ideals and actions.