SANT-ÉTIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France – Chiming bells called religious leaders, politicians and dignitaries to church for a packed ceremony on Wednesday honoring the one-year anniversary of the brutal murder of an 85-year-old French priest by assassins pledging loyalty to ISIS.
The Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, celebrated the anniversary Mass at the small Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, where Father Jacques Hamel was killed by having his throat slit on July 26, 2016, by two 19-year-old Muslim terrorists.
“Though he is dead, Father Jacques Hamel is still alive,” Lebrun told people gathered in the cramped church.
“Hate has not triumphed, and it will never triumph.”
During an introduction before the 9 a.m. Mass, the archbishop thanked politicians, including French President Emmanuel Macron, for participating at the event, and also welcomed representatives of the local Muslim community, to whom he said, “Your friendship is truly important.”
Lebrun spoke the words, “May peace be with you,” with special emphasis in a small Normandy town that one year ago was the theatre of an attack that shook not only France, but also the entire world.
“In this church Father Hamel spoke, he spoke the language of love. In this church Father Hamel was silenced, he speaks no more,” the archbishop said in his homily. “Today Father Hamel speaks still. His life and his death speak after his death.”
The homily described a “faithful, simple and ordinary” man who gave his life for Christ and his community, and Lebrun reminded congregants that “Father Jacques did not die alone, he died with Jesus.”
At the end of the Mass, faithful placed flowers, plucked from Hamel’s own garden, under a statue of the Virgin Mary, the very same statue that was effaced by the terrorists on the day of the attack.
“A year ago, the population of Saint-Etienne was thrown into the whirl of emotions,” said the mayor of the town, Joaquim Moïse, from a podium in the square adjacent to the church.
“The initial disbelief was followed by fear, then mingled with incomprehension, sorrow, disgust. In an act of horror, the life of Jacques Hamel was taken away.”
The tragedy that occurred one year ago in Sant-Étienne-du-Rouvray was not the first act of terrorism witnessed in France, nor the last. The year 2017 already carries heavy memories of violent attacks at the hands of ISIS-affiliated terrorists. Nevertheless, given the grisly nature of Hamel’s death, coupled with the relatively isolated setting of the attack outside the country’s main urban areas, it sparked both deep horror and fear.
Macron credited Lebrun and Moïse with offering an example of peace and dialogue, inspired by the life and death of Hamel, and therefore avoiding the spiral of vengeance and hatred.
“By murdering Father Hamel at the foot of his altar, the two terrorists undoubtedly believed they were sowing the thirst for vengeance and retaliation among French Catholics,” Macron said at the podium after the mass.
“They have failed.”
In his speech, Macron referred to Hamel as a “martyr” and acknowledged that “in these troubled times, where so many of our brothers suffer from terrorism and from persecution,” the state must guarantee religious freedom for believers and non-believers alike and protect places of worship.
“The Republic does not have to fight religion, nor to substitute itself for it,” he said.
The realpolitik of the French president’s participation at this event cannot be underestimated. During the presidential campaign, the relatively unknown Macron was up against right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and center-right politician François Fillon, with whom he sparred in order to gather the nascent Catholic vote in France.
“Zombie Catholics,” as the media refers to them, have increasingly become a force to be reckoned with in the country, and a coveted pool of votes after their knight in shining armor, Fillon, was accused of financial indiscretions late in the race. Macron’s presence is essential if he wishes to capture this segment of the electorate.
“The face of Jacques Hamel has become a face that refuses death. Jacques Hamel’s smile has become a reminder of resistance in the face of obscurantism,” the president continued. “Father Hamel’s martyrdom will not have been in vain.”
At the end of the ceremony, local politicians presented a memorial built as a tribute to the martyred priest. The metal disc, about two meters in diameter, shows quotes from the 1948 universal Declaration of Human Rights surrounded by stylized profiles.
“This memorial is a symbol of peace and brotherhood in memory of Jacques Hamel,” Moïse said. “Healing will take time, but the blood shed has strengthened us in our unquenchable desire to live better in fraternity.”