A Martyr in our time
On July 26th of last year the world woke up to the news of a terrorist attack at a parish church in northern France. The church of St. Etienne de Rouvray is in a quiet suburb of the city of Rouen and for generations past, people have attended Mass here on a daily basis. It’s not the kind of place you’d ever think would be the target of terrorists. That fateful morning just a year ago the Mass was to be interrupted by Islamic radical terrorists who to the abject horror of those at Mass stabbed their beloved priest to death. After being wounded Father Hamel fell to the ground and cried out ‘begone Satan’ recognising the sheer evil that had taken over his killer’s heart.
For 58 years he had served the people of Rouen in various parishes and is warmly remembered by all who knew him as a quiet deeply spiritual man who had a particular care for all people irrespective of the religious affiliation. When he arrived on the altar that morning he could not have known what was to unfold and how the horror of his murder would echo his name around the world.
I think that Fr. Hamel is a stark reminder to us of the many innocents who have died through terrorism and violence in recent times. The fact that he was a priest in the very act of celebrating the loving sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross when he was cut down, makes his death all the more poignant. His death echoes the deaths of all whose lives have been taken unjustly in the name of political or religious fanaticism. The contrast between good and evil came into sharp focus on the day of his murder.
Fr. Hamel could have retired from active ministry at age 75 but his heart was that of a true pastor and knowing the dire shortage of priests he chose rather to go on working in a parish. He used to joke with his fellow priests about how he might one day take early retirement. Those who knew him well describe him as “a ray of sunshine” whose gentle welcoming manner put everyone at ease.
Martyr. This is the word used by Pope Francis during a special memorial Mass he celebrated at his Santa Marta residence in the presence of the priest’s sister and the Archbishop of Rouen some weeks after his death. He went on to quote those last words of Fr. Hamel and declared that “murder in the name of God is satanic.”
On the morning of his death there were just about 20 people at that Mass. This Wednesday 26th – one year later - the church was filled to capacity. The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Rouen Dominique Lebrun and the president of France was in attendance – the ceremony was carried live throughout France by the main TV channel. As in his life Fr. Hamel proclaimed the Gospel of love so in his death he reminds us of the ultimate triumph of goodness over evil.
Pope Francis has dispensed from the usual five year waiting period before the opening of a cause for canonisation, it seems clear that the quiet life and tragic death of a truly good man will receive due recognition before too long.
Fr. Philip Curran