Faith

Remembering the Martyr Murdered by ISIS in Normandy

On the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, we recall the elderly priest struck down as he said Mass

One year ago today — on the feast of the grandparents of Jesus, Sts. Joachim and Anne — the 85-year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel was slaughtered by Islamists as he said Mass in his parish in Normandy, France.

Fr. Jacques died a martyr; there is hardly a clearer case for this. His assassins, who cut his throat, were Muslim men who pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Fr. Jacques was killed because he was a Christian and a priest.

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He was not killed because his assailants were victims of poverty or discrimination, or because they suffered from low self-esteem or were petty criminals. They were hardcore jihadis, committed to desecrating the most sacred moment for a Catholic — the celebration of Mass, and to kill a priest who represents Christ Himself.

For once, even the secularists who dominate the life of contemporary Europe were stunned by this act of sacrilege. Perhaps it was Fr. Jacques’s advanced age and the calm way in which the killers committed a crime of such brutality. They even engaged in religious dialogue and “smiled” at the two elderly nuns who were attending Mass.

More likely European secularists reacted with horror because an act they associated with the barbarians of the Middle East took place in the heart of Europe, in the little village of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy. Maybe they realized there is nowhere safe from the danger of “lone wolves,” who all come from the same pack?

The martyrdom of Fr. Jacques, terrible as it was, is a normality today for the persecuted Christians of Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and so many other countries. Indeed, Pope Francis has declared Christianity the most persecuted religion in the world. It is enduring attacks unseen since the great persecutions of the early centuries of the church. However, the slitting of the throat of a man who had given his entire life to Christ — and this horrible event’s occurrence during Mass — has had, and still has, a profound spiritual significance for all who claim to be Christian.

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Orthodox and Catholic Christians believe the holy Mass is the representation of Calvary, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross made present on earth. In a very real sense, those attending Mass are with the Virgin Mary and the bystanders who watched Jesus suffer and die.

A priest, according to the teaching of the church, acts “in persona Christi” — in the very person of Christ, as he utters the words, “This is My body, this is My blood.” The assassins knew their theology far better than many weekly Mass-goers, who think they are attending a communal meal overseen by a “presider.”

The last words of Fr. Jacques, which he repeated twice as the Islamists forced him to his knees to cut his throat, were — according to witnesses “Va-t’en, Satan” — “begone, Satan.” These were the very words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter four, as he dismissed the devil after the temptation in the desert.

We have grown used to bland statements by bishops after appalling events, but one senior English cleric outdid his colleagues with a comment of breathtaking vapidity. He wondered whether Fr. Hamel’s last words indicated some sort of existential crisis for this faithful priest. Perhaps “his ‘Satan’ could have been the fear gripping his heart, or a despair that all was about to be lost?”

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Fr. Jacques knew exactly who was behind his murder. He knew who his murderers were serving and he identified him with his twice-repeated words. Pope Francis has already declared Fr. Jacques “blessed,” an informal recognition of his martyred status and an encouragement for public veneration.

The Archdiocese of Rouen has opened the cause of his canonization. Tertullian, the Christian theologian who died in 240 A.D., is often quoted when Christians suffer martyrdom — the “blood of martyrs,” he said, is the “seed of the church.”

Perhaps the blood of the faithful French priest, Jacques Hamel, shed in the heart of a Europe where the faith seems to be dying, will give courage and inspiration for a new springtime in the church, if the church is faithful.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. 

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