Serenhedd James on the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel
There was horror and disgust at the end of July, after the octogenarian Fr Jacques Hamel had his throat cut by young Islamists at the altar of a church dedicated to St Stephen in the hitherto unremarkable suburb of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, on the outskirts of Rouen. Responses that went beyond that general feeling, however, were mixed. The internet was the usual mirror of fickleness: while some took to their keyboards with cries of “subito santo”, there was no general outpouring of solidarity such as we saw after the attacks on Paris and Brussels; and the hashtag #jesuispretre did not get far.
The murder of Christians for their faith is hardly new. It has never been new, and it is has been happening with increasing frequency and brutality for the last twenty years in places where Christianity had previously flourished from apostolic times. In that context, we might call to mind briefly Fr Raphael Moussa, shot dead in June; or Maged Attia, a 33-year-old pharmacist, beheaded; or the elderly Mother Athanasia, of the Coptic Monastery of Great St George in Old Cairo, gunned down in early July. That is but three names; a handful of deaths in Egypt alone. Others have had their homes torched, or been beaten, or publicly humiliated. Bishop Angaelos, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has been quite clear: “The time has come yet again to speak of heightened, targeted attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt.” Meanwhile, the chilling spectre of Daesh has continued to wage its murderous campaign across the rest of the Middle East. As for Turkey – let’s just wait and see who President Erdoğan decides to round up next.
Given the situation in which the world presently finds itself, maybe it was only a matter of time before a priest of the Western Church would be targeted in the same way as many of his brethren of the East. Perhaps it was also inevitable that the attack should happen in France, where the lingering threat of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam has loomed particularly large in the last two years. Obviously, we cannot lament the deaths of Europeans without recalling the anti-Christian violence that continues to take place on a daily basis across the Middle East – and this summer was very bloody indeed – but Fr Hamel’s death brought the horror into focus in a very particular and pertinent way.
There comes a point from time to time when one person becomes the most prayed for individual in the world, either in times of elation – at the election of a Pope, for example – or sorrow. There is always an element of pathos in the latter. Fr Hamel’s death was no exception, as his name began to be whispered across the globe. A comparison is inevitable. A frail old man of 85 is, when all is said and done, dispatched easily enough in any number of ways. And yet Fr Hamel’s throat was slit as if he was a beast of the Old Testament, brought to the Temple to be offered on the altar for the sins of the people – while he himself stood at the altar of the New Temple, offering the sacrifice of the New Covenant in all its unbloody efficacy for the salvation of God’s people, living and departed. Even Giles Fraser – yes, the Giles Fraser – was forthright about that in the Guardian:
[His] throat was slit as he said morning mass, murdered by a teenager claiming allegiance to Islamic State. The sacrificial imagery is unavoidable… He died, as he believed, on his knees – not in supplication to his spotty murderers, but to the author of life itself to whom he was about to return.
From the pulpit of Notre-Dame the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, condemned Fr Hamel’s murderers as benighted followers of Moloch – that monstrous falsehood whom Milton, in Paradise Lost, called a “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears”. At Fr Hamel’s requiem the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, confirmed that the slain priest’s last words to his killers were “Be gone, Satan!”; and the stole placed on his coffin was red. By mid-August rumours were circulating that Archbishop Lebrun intended open Fr Hamel’s cause for beatification, and to waive the customary five-year delay.
And yet, following another confusing interview in the back of an aeroplane, Pope Francis declined to attribute specific religious motivation to Fr Hamel’s murder.
I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence, because every day, when I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy… Someone has murdered his girlfriend, another has killed his mother-in-law… and these are baptized Catholics! There are violent Catholics! If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence… No, not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad…
The thing about a fruit salad, however, is that its components inevitably vary according to season and taste. Clearly it is true that not all Muslims are violent, just as much as it is true that not all Christians are peaceable – Rouen is where the Maid of Orléans met her fiery death in 1431, after all. But it is inescapable that the deranged devotees of Daesh believe that their actions are demanded of them by their God; while today’s baptized Catholics who kill their girlfriends or mothers-in-law do so for more rational reasons – however inexcusable – of hatred, jealousy, passion, and avarice, to name but a few. They do not, as a rule, do in their victims with cries of “Quicunque Vult”.
Soon a Twitter frenzy of #PasMonPape – “Not My Pope” – was trending on French social media; and John Allen, writing for Crux, noted that a number of Eastern bishops – whose communities have borne the brunt of so much of ISIS’s fury – had expressed regret at the Pope’s comments, which “had not played well with their people”, and had left many of them feeling “angry and betrayed”. Other commentators, meanwhile, have suggested that the Pope is playing a long game, and refusing to engage with the so-called Islamic State on its own terms – or to allow himself to be drawn into their narrative of holy war. If that is in fact the plan, then His Holiness probably needs to let the world know about it sooner, rather than later.
Serenhedd James is Editor of New Directions.