Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the most horrifying reminders of the reality of contemporary anti-Christian persecution anywhere in the world: The grisly slaying of 85-year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel on July 26, 2016, while saying morning Mass at the Church of Sant-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, France, by two men professing loyalty to ISIS.
In part because the murder happened just as World Youth Day 2016 opened in Krakow, Poland, it shocked the Catholic imagination immediately, and generated new attention to Christian victims of religious hatred all around the world.
Crux’s Claire Giangravé was in the small Normandy church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray for an anniversary Mass on Wednesday, attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, at which Archbishop Dominque Lebrun of Rouen declared, “Though he is dead, Father Jacques Hamel is still alive.”
“Hate has not triumphed, and it will never triumph,” he said.
Hamel is today a candidate for sainthood. His sister Roselyne, who met Pope Francis in late April during a service for modern-day martyrs in Rome, spoke to Giangravé about her brother’s legacy.
“My brother has become a ‘brother to all’,” she said. “We must not forget that this priest died and, that a few minutes before, he prayed for peace for the whole world, for peace among peoples.”
Remarkably, she expressed no bitterness toward the Muslim community, instead voicing concern over generalized blame. She often meets with Muslim communities in France in search of “an encounter, and in order to share a better understanding.”
In that, she clearly reflects her brother, who had been a close friend of Mohammed Karabila, the president of Normandy’s regional council of Muslims.
That spirit of generosity, of concern for others despite one’s own suffering, probably by itself says everything that needs to be said about why Wednesday’s anniversary mattered.
Nevertheless, there are several other compelling reasons why preserving Hamel’s legacy is important. Yesterday on Crux, Chris White laid out one of them – how the remarkably unified response to Hamel across the church in France is a powerful antidote to the tribal tensions of the day.
Here are three other thoughts on why Hamel’s life, death and legacy offer valuable lessons, and not just for France but the universal Church.
First, Hamel is a reminder that while many of today’s victims of anti-Christian persecution may not satisfy the traditional tests for martyrdom – a primary reason why Pope Francis just added a new pathway to sainthood called the “offer of life,” meaning giving up one’s life for another – some clearly still do.
In Hamel’s case, there’s little doubt his death came in odium fidei, meaning “hatred of the faith.” He had no particular political or social stands for which he was known, and really, very little public profile at all.
When his assailants slit his throat as he was saying Mass, they were killing a Catholic priest, because they despise what a priest believes and represents. Even Hamel’s shouted response as they grabbed him – “Satan, Go!” – lends a clearly spiritual context to his death.
In other words, Hamel illustrates that there’s no sharp dividing line between centuries ago and today in terms of the kinds of risks Christians run, and there are still plenty of traditional, old-school martyrs in the here-and-now.
Second, Hamel is also a reminder of the global nature of the threats facing Christians today, and for that matter all persecuted religious minorities.
Yes, Hamel was killed in Normandy, but his killers were inspired by a radical Islamic movement with its roots in Iraq and Syria. To add a further deftly poetic touch, his successor as the pastor of the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray is a priest from the Democratic Republic of Congo, another nation that’s seen far more than its fair share of contemporary Christian martyrs.
In other words, Hamel is a reminder that the “suffering church” today isn’t localized in one region of the world, like the church behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but can be found anywhere the conditions lend themselves to it.
Third, he’s a classic exemplar of one of the most profound lessons of the martyrs: Beyond all the heartache and frustrations we may experience in the Church sometimes, there’s still something so precious about the faith that, when push comes to shove, ordinary people, with zero aspiration to heroism, will nevertheless pay in blood before they let it go.
As Lebrun put it in a recent interview, Hamel was “a simple and exemplary priest, perhaps exemplary because he was simple.”
If you ask people in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray today what they remember of Hamel, Lebrun said, they’ll tell you “he did baptisms, he celebrated weddings, he preached, he celebrated the Mass with fidelity, and he was well-integrated into his city.
“It’s the same thing that every day a priest does in Australia, or Kenya, or India, or Latin America,” Lebrun said. “He wasn’t a media priest, he was a diocesan priest, and priest and that’s all, and that speaks to all humanity.”
Surely all that adds up to a halo for Hamel, doesn’t it?
On Hamel’s sainthood cause, Lebrun is cautious, warning that “a serene justice is also a slow justice.”
Pope Francis in 2016 declared Hamel a “martyr” and waived the normal five-year waiting period to launch a cause – in part, Lebrun explained, because survivors of the attack on the church need to give testimony, and many of them are of advanced years.
At this point, he said, ten of the 69 projected witnesses have been heard by a tribunal commissioned to handle the case, and the tribunal could also still decide to call others. He expects it may yet be one to three years before the results reach Rome, and who knows how long after that – assuming, of course, that Pope Francis in the meantime does not decide to do what he’s done in a handful of other cases, short-circuiting the process by declaring Hamel a saint under his own personal authority.
In the meantime, Lebrun says he already notes one fruit of the martyr – there have been absolutely no arguments in the archdiocese for the last year over any of the simple things that often cause tensions when a priest dies, such as how to get his apartment in order and when it would be emptied for the next pastor, what time or where to say his memorial Masses, whether somebody is or is not doing their fair share, and so on.
“I’m not aware of any differing opinions that have ever caused conflict, which is very rare,” Lebrun said.
“Father Hamel has brought peace!”