ROME — Pope Francis on Wednesday called Father Jacques Hamel, the French priest brutally slain by two ISIS sympathizers as he was celebrating Mass in late July, a “martyr,” suggesting that sainthood for the murdered priest may not be far off.
The pontiff also said that killing in the name of God is “satanic.”
On Wednesday morning, Francis celebrated Mass in honor of the murdered priest, joined by 80 pilgrims from Hamel’s French diocese of Rouen. The celebration was live-streamed through the Vatican’s YouTube channel.
In his homily, the pontiff called the priest “blessed,” the step previous to sainthood, asking the faithful to pray for his intercession, so that he “gives us the courage to say the truth: to kill in the name of God is satanic.”
“This man accepted his martyrdom next to the martyrdom of Christ, on the altar,” Francis said during his improvised homily, which was interpreted into French as he was delivering it. “He was beheaded on the Cross, as he was celebrating the sacrifice of Christ’s cross [the Mass].”
Hamel had retired nearly a decade ago, but continued to serve as an assistant priest at the church in St Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen. When the two assailants burst into the church on July 26, he was leading the service in the absence of the regular priest.
“This makes me think so much… amidst the difficult moment he was living, amidst the tragedy that he saw coming, this humble, good man, who worked for fraternity, didn’t lose the lucidity to accuse and clearly named his assassin. He said clearly: ‘Satan, go!’”
Hamel, Francis said, gave his life “in the same sacrifice of Jesus on the altar. And from there, he named the author of the persecution.”
“He gave his life for us so as not to deny Jesus,” Francis said. “He is a martyr and martyrs are beatified.”
Persecution against Christians, Francis said, is worse today than in the early days of the Church.
“Today, there are Christians murdered, tortured, imprisoned, beheaded because they don’t deny Christ,” the pope said.
He celebrated the Mass at the Santa Marta residence, the hotel within Vatican grounds where he lives.
Francis began his homily saying that today [Wednesday] the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, who humiliated himself by becoming a man and accepting death on the cross.
“Jesus Christ is the first martyr, the first who gave his life for us. And in this mystery of Christ begins all the history of the Christian martyrdom. From the first century until today,” the pope said.
The first Christians, he continued, professed their faith in Jesus, paying with their own lives.
“[They] were offered apostasy, meaning, ‘say that our God is the real one and not yours. Make a sacrifice to our god or gods,’ and when they didn’t, when they refused apostasy, they were killed,” Francis said.
And this history is repeated daily today, all over the world.
In 2013, Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups in 102 of 198 countries included in a Pew Research Center study, the highest tally for any religious group. An earlier study by other researchers reported a 309 percent jump in attacks on Christians in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
For the past three years, Christians have been brutally killed in many Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq, where Christianity was born, at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist groups such as ISIS. The death toll is so high, and the intent so clear, that the United States government recently officially designated what’s happening as “genocide.”
Attacks at Garissa University in Kenya, where 148 Christian students were killed in 2015 because they couldn’t recite the Quran, and at a downtown park in Lahore, Pakistan, where 69 people were killed last Easter Sunday, are still fresh in the memories of many.
But the cases of Christians getting killed are too many to list them all, with statistics showing that at least one person is killed every hour of every day because of his or her faith.
Christians being murdered and tortured, Pope Francis said, are experiencing suffering because they don’t deny Jesus.
“In this history, we reach our dear Jacques. He’s part of this chain of martyrs. Christians who today suffer, either in jail, with their death or tortures for not denying Christ make us see the cruelty of this persecution,” Francis said.
“And this cruelty that asks for apostasy, let’s say the word, is satanic,” he stated.
Although he didn’t mention any religion in particular, Francis did say that he wished all faiths would say that “killing in the name of God is satanic.”
After the Mass, Rouen’s archbishop, Dominique Lebrun, and Hamel’s sister talked to journalists at the Vatican’s press office.
Lebrun said the pope had told him to put the image of Hamel in local churches, because he’s “blessed,” and that if anyone protests against it, the archbishop could say that he was doing so with the pope’s permission.