Father Jacques Hamel was killed by Islamic State inspired attackers on July 26 of last year while celebrating daily mass at a small parish church outside of Rouen, France.
On that day only a handful of parishioners were on hand for Mass. A year later, however, the anniversary mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Dominique Lebrun, attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, and broadcast throughout the country.
The martyrdom of Hamel sent shockwaves throughout France, Europe, and the world and its significance has been the subject of much debate. For some, the killing was further evidence of the threat of Islamic extremism in Europe. Others warned that efforts to promote Hamel as a martyred saint would only concede victory to extremists encouraging interreligious violence.
Pope Francis has emphasized the absurdity of such violence, reminding the world that killing in the name of God is satanic. Lebrun used the attack to plead with French citizens to practice forgiveness and reconciliation among neighbors of differing faiths.
Recently, I considered the external consequences of Hamel’s martyrdom, arguing that it should lead to a recovery of the practice of solidarity, which could revitalize the project of European integration. Today, I’d like to consider what his death might mean internally for those within the Catholic Church.
When Hamel was killed at the altar at age 85, he had spent 58 years of his life as a priest. He was ordained a priest just before the Second Vatican Council and was known primarily for his work as a local pastor.
While he had the option of retiring at age 75, he continued his priestly ministry with an indefatigable work ethic — only taking time away from his parish to visit his sisters.
I spent the better part of June in France, much of it talking to Catholic leaders, seminarians, and rectors. The subject of Hamel’s death was always among the first to come up and I was particularly curious how younger priests viewed the witness of this older martyr.
One young priest in Paris put it to me like this: “Hamel was an ordinary priest from a very different generation than mine. Too often we’ve tended to label priests of his era as more liberal, or even less Catholic, than the priests of my generation. His martyrdom now serves as a bridge and I think many of us in the younger generation now have a special devotion to him.”
The turbulent years following Vatican II presented undeniable changes and challenges for the priesthood and the universal Church. Different factions within the Church effectively took sides—be it in debates over liturgical matters or political engagement — and many of the results have been less than edifying. Such tribalism has persisted and is particularly evident in the Francis era where there has been no shortage of those willing to exploit these divisions within the Church.
The extraordinary response to Hamel’s martyrdom throughout France has been one of unity and an abiding belief that his sacrifice would yield a greater good for both the Church and the country. It was a moment in which differences between self-described “traditionalists” and “Vatican II” Catholics were put aside and as that young Parisian priest said to me, “we were reminded that we were primarily all Catholics first.”
Upon his death, another priest serving at the same parish as Hamel remarked, “He was very balanced when it came to the evolution of the church, not too traditional, but not too permissive either. He welcomed all the changes made by the pope. His open-mindedness made him someone who wasn’t afraid of change.” In other words, he loved his Church, loved his Pope, and was open to the Holy Spirit. He was simply, yet profoundly, Catholic.
The week following his killing, Islamic leaders throughout France encouraged Muslims to attend mass as a sign of solidarity.
One Catholic described to me the experience of a Muslim family sheepishly entering their small village church in Bordeaux: “After the Mass I approached the father and thanked him for his presence. I then introduced my children to his children and I hope it’s an experience that they will never forget. We hugged one another and vowed to remember each other’s family in prayer.”
This spirit of unity has been critical in healing a divided nation, but the lessons to be learned from Hamel’s martyrdom are not merely political. Here, we’ve been offered a blueprint from how those in both the pews and pulpit ought to model our lives and our Catholic witness.
It’s long been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In this time of polarization and ecclesial divisions, we would do well to remember the life of Father Jacques Hamel so that his blood be not shed in vain.