St. John Paul once said that, in the providence of God, there are “no such thing as coincidences.” Presumably, then, it was providential that on the Friday before this most Holy Week in the Christian calendar, a French police officer and devout Catholic gave his life — like Christ — to save a young mother during an Islamic attack in southwest France.
Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, 44, voluntarily exchanged places with a mother of a two-year-old child who had been taken hostage by an Islamist terrorist, Redouane Lakdim, in a small supermarket in the French town of Trebes.
Lakdim, who pledged allegiance to ISIS and had, apparently according to some reports, returned from Syria, had already murdered before the brave gendarme stepped forward. Initial reports stated that Col. Beltrame had been stabbed and shot, before he died in hospital after the siege ended with the terrorist’s death.
It now appears that, like the martyred French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel, murdered by Islamists in Normandy in 2016 while celebrating Mass, the terrorist had slashed the throat of Col. Beltrame, attempting to behead him, the preferred means of execution by the demons of the Islamic State.
Both the manner of his death, and the willingness to sacrifice his life for that of another, were not the product of chance or coincidence — it was the result of the profound Catholic faith of Arnaud Beltrame.
Named Arnaud (the French “Arnold,” a French soldier saint who became a monk and bishop), he was a typical product of French Catholicism — nominal after baptism. Brought up in a nonpracticing family, Arnaud had a profound conversion — or technically a “reversion,” to the practice of his faith, in 2008. Already a member of the elite Special Forces unit of the French police, Arnaud had also served in Iraq. He made his first Communion and Confirmation in 2010, after two years of instruction.
That fact alone is significant. This elite police officer was properly formed in his faith — a faith he had chosen to practice as an adult — and which led to ultimate witness of his faith. In 2015 he went on a pilgrimage, partly to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to find a devout, believing woman he could marry. He met Marielle Vandenbunder, and was due to be married on June 9.
The priest who gave Arnaud the last rites of the church on the night of his death, Fr. Jean-Baptiste, not only spoke profoundly of Arnaud’s faith but also gave a clue as to the source of its growing strength. Fr. Jean-Baptiste is a member of the religious order of the Canons Regular of the Mother of God, who have occupied the seventh-century monastery of Lagrasse Abbey, near Carcassone, France, since 2004. Beltrame and his fiancé, Marielle, had been attending Mass at Lagrasse and receiving marriage instruction for the two years before his death.
Lagrasse Abbey is a “traditionalist” community, where the Catholic faith, and its unique place in French life and culture, is celebrated and promoted. After his renewed practice of the faith, according to Fr. Jean-Baptiste, Arnaud, who had always been a patriot, “rediscovered the Christian roots” of the “eldest daughter of the Church” — France.
The Catholic faith in France is relatively unique: It is either dead or very much alive. There doesn’t appear to be any middle ground. The traditionalist communities in France, both those in communion with Rome and other groups, are flourishing — there are packed churches, with many young families, vocations pouring into monasteries and convents, and many young priests. Arnaud Beltrame and his future wife were products of this vibrant, traditional French practice of the faith.
All of this was providential, leading up to the events of last Friday before Holy Week.
The word “hero” is used very easily and superficially today. One is not a hero merely for the wearing of a uniform or the membership within a unit or police force. A hero, according to the dictionary, exhibits “courage and noble qualities.” French President Emmanuel Macron, described Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame as a “national hero” — undoubtedly that description is accurate.
The willingness to swap places with a hostage, put himself in extreme danger — with the full knowledge that Islamist terrorists are brutal, cowardly and murderous — was an act of courage and nobility. To do this just before his marriage, to the woman he had met after asking for the Virgin Mary’s intercession, was far more than heroic. It was an act of Christian witness, also known as martyrdom.
“Greater love hath no man,” said the Lord, “than to lay down his life for his friends” (John:15:13).
It is impossible to believe that Arnaud Beltrame performed this heroic act without the inspiration of his renewed and well-formed Catholic faith. Indeed, Fr. Jean-Baptiste has stated that “only a Christian faith animated by charity could give this superhuman sacrifice.”
Arnaud Beltrame is already being compared to the Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz who volunteered to die in place of a married man. Others have already noted the “new martyrdom” of believing Christians in France — with the death of Fr. Jacques Hamel — and the undeniable likelihood of many more as France succumbs to jihadi terrorism.
In times past, better and more noble times, it was not celebrity that was worshipped but sanctity.
In God’s providence, it is the witness of a faith lived until the end that marks out the heroic nature of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame’s sacrifice one week before Good Friday.
His act, according to the president of the French bishops conference, Archbishop Georges Pontier, was like Jesus, “who gave His life for us.” In times past, better and more noble times, it was not celebrity that was worshipped but sanctity.
In this Holy Week, we have someone who is worthy of celebration and popular acclaim.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.