Five years ago this very day, an 85 year-old French priest named Jacques Hamel woke and, as he had done practically every other morning of his 58 years as a priest, made his way to the local parish church to offer morning Mass. This in itself is something quite remarkable. Fr. Hamel was ordained for the Archdiocese of Rouen, France in 1958 and early in his priesthood endured the trying decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when many priests of his generation abandoned the clerical state. Over the course of his life, he had witnessed France embrace a hardened secularism. Sunday Mass attendance, for example, is far lower than there than even here in the United States.
Yet Fr. Hamel persevered in his vocation serving the souls entrusted to his care in one parish after another, year after year.
Everyone who knew him described him as a simple, caring, hardworking priest, one who stayed working in the Lord’s vineyard long past his retirement age. Fr. Hamel was substituting for the parish priest that Tuesday morning five years ago. The church is located in the working class town of St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in Normandy, where Fr. Hamel had spent much of his life. The church, like the town, is named for St. Stephen who has the honor of heading the “white-robed army of martyrs” as the first to give his life for the Master.
Our Church has, from the start, been a Church of the martyrs. In T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, just before his own martyrdom, St. Thomas Becket boldly proclaims:
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death.
My death for His death.
“This is the sign of the Church always, The sign of blood. Blood for blood.” Indeed. Eleven of the twelve Apostles were killed for professing their faith in Jesus Christ. In the Roman Empire, Christians were killed simply for refusing to burn just a pinch of incense before a statue of the Roman gods. In the 20th century there were more martyrs for the Faith than in all previous centuries combined, in places such as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia and China. The killing continues today, of course, especially in places like the Middles East and Nigeria. From the beginning we were taught by the Lord: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (Jn 15:18; 20).
That morning five years ago, the unassuming priest Fr. Jacques Hamel took his place in the long line martyrs in the Church’s history. This martyrdom, unlike the many others before him, would come in the unexpected setting of a simple parish in a commune of the French countryside, which should have been a place of security and peace.
At some point during the Mass two men entered the 16th-century church screaming “Allāhu Akbar”—a slogan of Islam used as a battle cry. Wielding knives and a handgun they took the priest and the three religious sisters and two parishioners in attendance hostage and ordered all to sit together in a group. The two assailants were young men of Arab ethnicity whose minds were poisoned by the propaganda of the terrorist organization called Daesh, or the Islamic State. After filming themselves making some declarations they forced Fr. Hamel to the foot of the altar. The frail but incredibly brave priest resisted them after receiving the first stab wound saying, “Go away, Satan.” He pushed his attackers away with his feet while exclaiming again, “Begone, Satan!”
After finally subduing him they then proceeded to slit his throat.
What an extraordinary scene; a priest killed at the altar while offering Mass. In ancient Christian thinking, the Mass and martyrdom were so intimately related that the one explained the other. In the Canon of the Mass for instance, there are two lists of martyrs. The altar is where Christ becomes the Victim for us. Each Mass represents to God the Father the same sacrificial death Christ offered on the Cross for our salvation. The esteem given to the martyrs of the early Church was so great that the natural impulse of the Christian heart was to inter their sacred relics in the altar (a custom that continues to this day) as a sign of their union with Christ by mirroring His own supreme oblation: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
The terrorists had no reason to target Fr. Hamel except that he was a priest of Jesus Christ. Fr. Hamel meets the definition of a martyr, one who is killed out of “odium fidei, hatred for the faith.” Pope Francis has suspended the canonical requirement that requires a period of at least five years before the opening of the process of canonization. This process is already well underway for Fr. Hamel. At a Mass offered at his residence in the Vatican, the Pope said of him: “This man accepted his martyrdom next to the martyrdom of Christ on the altar.”
We wait the joyous day when Fr. Jacques Hamel will be raised to the altars. His beatification would be an important witness to our modern world where the faithful Catholic is “caught between a rock and a hard place” with a liberal Western culture that has grown slack in virtue and ignorant of its own Christian foundations on the one side, and militant Islam on the other. Throughout Fr. Hamel’s life when his own people were abandoning their Christian heritage, his faith endured. In the face of irrational rage he did not cower in fear, but boldly proclaimed Christ with his last breath.
We mourn for the sins of the world that martyred him; but we rejoice that another soul is numbered among the saints to intercede for us.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
– Wisdom 3:1-3
The French Episcopal Conference disseminated this official prayer to request Fr. Jacques Hamel’s intercession:
Father Jacques Hamel,
Grant us the favor of presenting our prayer to God
Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
You who consecrated your life to Him:
May God help us to do His Will
simply and faithfully each day.
You who offered Him the bread and wine:
May God help us to open our lives for His glory
and the salvation of the world.
You who unmasked Satan, the divisor:
May God help us to repel his temptations,
Receiving the spirit of love and forgiveness.
You who died in the habits of prayer:
May God help us to witness Jesus and His Gospel to the end.
Present to God also this particular intention: (the intention is mentioned).
Finally, present to God with insistence the petition
Of the diocese of Rouen for youths
who consecrate their life to Him.
Father Jacques Hamel, pray for us!
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