One year ago, Father Jacques Hamel was killed by two men, both of whom pledged allegiance to ISIS, while celebrating morning Mass in Normandy, France. Hamel had served as a priest for almost six decades. Pope Francis referred to him as a “martyr,” pointing out that he “accepted his martyrdom next to the martyrdom of Christ, on the altar.”
Martyrdom may seem like it is confined to the ancient past — something that Christians dealt with while under Roman dominion — but the last few years have witnessed an increasing number of Christian martyrs. Coptic Christians in Egypt, for example, have suffered numerous attacks by the Islamic State. Father Hamel joined the ranks of these martyrs, and did so with courage, in his final moments, to call the enemy by its real name, saying to the attackers, “Begone, Satan!”
Moreover, as John L. Allen Jr., the editor of Crux, observed, Hamel was “a classic exemplar of one of the most profound lessons of the martyrs”:
Beyond all the heartache and frustrations we may experience in the Church sometimes, there’s still something so precious about the faith that, when push comes to shove, ordinary people, with zero aspiration to heroism, will nevertheless pay in blood before they let it go.
While debates concerning the future direction of the Church have resulted in passionate disagreement between liberals and conservatives, Father Hamel is one subject on which Catholics of all political persuasions agree. “The extraordinary response to Hamel’s martyrdom throughout France,” writes Christopher White for Crux, “has been one of unity and an abiding belief that his sacrifice would yield a greater good for both the Church and the country.”
Besides nurturing a spirit of unity within the Church, Hamel’s death created an opportunity for a closer relationship between French Catholics and Muslims. At a Mass celebrated in honor of the one-year anniversary of his death, French president Emmanuel Macron noted that “By murdering Father Hamel at the foot of his altar, the two terrorists undoubtedly wanted to sow the thirst for vengeance and retaliation among French Catholics.” Instead, Catholic leaders refused to use tragedy to sow discord and fear, and in the days following Father Hamel’s death, Muslims across France attended Mass in solidarity with Catholics.
Father Hamel died just as inklings of a Catholic revival in France were becoming apparent. A few months ago, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in America magazine that he had begun to notice more people seemed to be attending Mass:
A few years ago, I started to realize something. Whenever I was less than five minutes early for Mass, I had to go to the overflow room, and I would typically have to step over people sitting on the floor to get there. The church was filled to the gills every Sunday, with young families and children most of the time. . . . Then I moved. And I saw the same thing. I live in a very different neighborhood now, one that is “upwardly mobile,” as real estate agencies coyly say. But on Sunday morning the church is packed.
Gobry found that this trend held throughout Paris. The evidence of a revival, though anecdotal, is compelling. Perhaps Father Hamel’s death has injected new life into the Catholic Church in France. Surely, his life as a simple, faithful priest offers an inspiring model of holiness.
One year later, Father Hamel’s martyrdom offers an example of courage in the face of terror, and shows how reconciliation can emerge from an act of pure hatred. He deserves to be honored as a profound witness to the Catholic faith, and his death should be remembered for the fruits of unity and renewal it has borne.