Today, July 26, 2018, marks the second anniversary of the brutal murder of French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel in the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray while the elderly priest was celebrating the Eucharist. The 85-year-old priest’s throat was slit by two men armed with knives who took five people – Hamel, two religious sisters, and two worshippers – hostage in the church. The two men were later shot by police.
Dominique Lebrun, the Archbishop of Rouen was in Krakow, Poland, that week, celebrating World Youth Day 2016 with thousands of French youth. He sent a message to France with these words: “The Catholic Church has no other arms than prayer and fraternity among men. I will leave behind here hundreds of young people who are the future of humanity, of true humanity. I ask them not to give up in the face of such violence and to become apostles for a civilization of love.”
Many are writing about Fr. Hamel’s martyrdom on this anniversary. As media attention turns once again to that horrific murder, and to the masterminds of such acts of terror and violence, I wish to offer some considerations on the meaning of martyrdom which has become such a common yet misunderstood word in our vocabulary, especially in light of what happened to Fr. Hamel and to countless innocent persons over the past years. Those who have carried out many terrorist attacks over the past twenty years claimed to do so “in the name of Allah” and claimed to be martyrs for a holy cause. The point isn’t that Muslim suicide bombers or murderers really “are” or “are not” martyrs but rather that people revere them as martyrs… self-proclaimed or publicly, for very unholy causes.
In Islam, stories of martyrdom date back to bloodshed as the faith took root in the seventh century. It became increasingly linked to radical movements in the 20th century with calls for “martyrdom” by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and later with Palestinian militants and terrorist groups. The end of the Cold War brought Christian-Muslim tensions into sharper focus, including inter-religious clashes in Indonesia and the 1996 murder of the seven French monks of Tibhirine in Algeria by Islamic militants. While such cases are always shocking, we Christians must take great care in preventing our concepts of Christian martyrdom from evolving into a counter-attack to those who have terribly distorted Islam and carry out terrorist acts in the name of Allah.
A martyr [Greek for witness
] is a person who, for the Christian faith, freely and patiently suffers death at the hands of a persecutor. Martyrs choose to die rather than deny their faith by word or deed; they suffer patiently after the example of Christ; they do not resist their persecutors; they suffer death at the hands of ones who, though they may assign some other reason, really act through hatred of the Christian religion or of some Christian virtue. The Christian martyr does not desire death nor seek it for others. The name martyr, which in the very beginning of the Christian era meant a witness of Christ, was after a while given to those alone who suffered death for the faith.
The Second Vatican Council taught that martyrs follow in the footsteps of Jesus to the point of making even their death a gift to Christ: “Martyrdom makes the disciples like their master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it they are made like him by the shedding of blood
” (Lumen Gentium
Fr. Jacques Hamel (CNS photo/Paroisse Saint-Etienne via EPA)
The era of Christian martyrdom is not something of the past. There is little disputing the fact that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been the centuries of Christian martyrdom. It is not the executioner, the persecutor, or the historian who declares someone a martyr. It is a decision that the Church makes on the basis of what motivated the martyred person. There is little doubt that Fr. Jacques Hamel’s brutal death at the altar was out of hatred of the faith.
There is today a radicalization of what martyrdom means by some Muslim and even Christian groups. The western world's struggle with radical Islam is creeping into views of religious martyrdom. Some Christians seem ready to embrace the connotations of “victim” and “hero” that have driven extremist Muslim declarations, with each side portraying the other faith as a persecutor. We are living in a poisoned atmosphere or climate in which many see an Islamic siege on the entire Christian world. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of the “war of civilizations” and to misappropriate the title “martyr,” thus doing a great disservice to those who truly died for giving witness to Christ and the Christian faith.
Today we witness extremists who try to monopolize the religious leadership, whether it is Christians, Jews, or Muslims. To kill in the name of religion is not only an offence to God, but it is also a defeat for humanity. No situation can justify such criminal activity, which covers the perpetrators with infamy, and it is all the more deplorable when it hides behind religion, thereby bringing the pure truth of God down to the level of the terrorists’ own blindness and moral perversion.
Uniting our voice to that of Pope Francis, we say: “Any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural, or ideological differences”
(Ankara, November 28, 2014
The three communities of Abrahamic faith – Muslims, Christians, and Jews – are witnessing among some adherents the exploitation and manipulation of religion, fostering fanaticism with crude idols shaped by what is evil in ourselves. In today's world where God is tragically forgotten, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called in one spirit of love to defend and always promote human dignity, moral values, and freedom. Our common pilgrimage to eternity must be expressed in prayer, fasting, and charity but also in joint efforts for the condemnation of terrorism and violence in the name of God, for peace and justice, for human advancement and the protection of the environment.
At a time when many Christian values are at odds with our society, the heritage of Christian martyrs of our Church tradition can be of tremendous help to us in repairing the spiritual fabric of our Church and society, just as their spirit of self-sacrifice and openness to others challenges each of us.
In addition to his holiness of priestly life, Fr. Jacques Hamel is also well remembered for his ongoing dialogue with Muslims. Alongside the Regional Council for the Muslim Faith, he belonged to an interfaith committee created in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France in January 2015. Fr. Hamel’s insistence on interreligious dialogue continues to challenge us. Many have said that since the parish priest’s assassination, Muslim-Christian dialogue has become stronger in many parts of France and elsewhere around the world.
Hamel’s cause for beatification is progressing well and many witnesses have already been heard as part of the beatification process for this beloved priest, with the diocesan phase expected to conclude its investigation by the end of this year.