Martyrdom is an act of witness; it is a way that God has of trying to tell His Church something important, and we must listen
The martyrdom of Fr Hamel – may he intercede for us from his place in Heaven! – is one of those events that illuminates the political and religious landscapes of our time.
First of all, it is to be noted that the French President and his Prime Minister stayed away from the funeral. The government was represented in the presence of a cabinet minister, but even so, the absence of President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls is significant. There was clearly a risk that their presence might have aroused an adverse reaction. When Prime Minister Valls went to Nice after the atrocity there, he was booed. The French government is losing the confidence of the people, thanks to its inability to protect the nation from terrorism. Other governments, and opposition groups in waiting, should not feel smug about this. After all, would they be any better in delivering policies that would prevent similar attacks? The martyrdom of Fr Hamel underlines the helplessness of all authority in the face of terrorism, and the failure of all western governments to confront the challenge of ISIS, who, let us remember, are still in business.
The martyrdom of Fr Hamel also exposes divisions in the Church. These have been analysed very ably indeed by Fr Raymond de Souza in another article on this site. The Pope and his closest advisers are adamant that we should not use the phrase “Islamic violence”, and the Pope, not for the first time, has equated Islamic fundamentalism with the fundamentalism in other religions. But the truth of the matter is that there is no objective evidence to back this up, and this sort of assertion will simply cause confusion and bewilderment among not only the Catholic faithful, but among all impartial observers of good will. To talk about “Catholic violence” and equate it with “Islamic violence” as the Pope’s words seem to do leads one to question the entire communications strategy of the Vatican. In other words, the martyrdom of Fr Hamel has left the Vatican machine without a coherent response.
But of course other Catholics do have a response. For me, and everyone I have encountered on this issue, the matter is clear. As with the Martyrs of Otranto, canonised by Pope Francis only in 2013, so with Fr Hamel. Those who are killed in odium fidei are martyrs. This has always been the belief of the Church. It cannot change now. Those advising the Pope clearly do not want to be reminded of the martyrs he canonised only three years ago, however; but be this as it may, they have to take account, surely, of the rest of the Church, and in particular several Bishops’ conferences, who have already shown their unease at the Vatican line on this and other matters, albeit in a polite and coded manner.
The martyrdom of Fr Hamel, is, like all martyrdoms, an act of witness. As such it is a sign to us, a way that God has of trying to tell His Church something important, if only we would listen. What, then, is the message that the martyred priest proclaims?
First of all, do your job, according to your state in life. If you are a parish priest be the best sort of parish priest you can be. If that means celebrating Mass for small congregations on a weekday, when you are in your mid-eighties, then do that. This is the sort of good and humble service that delights the Lord and builds up the Church, even if such upbuilding may be invisible to the naked eye.
Secondly, do not be intimidated by those who wish to damage and destroy the Church. The enemies of the church, and this includes ISIS, but is certainly not limited to them, make a lot of noise, and engage in the ‘propaganda of the deed’, but do not be fooled: the weakness of the Church, seen in the death of Fr Hamel, is greater than all the supposed strength of those who murdered him. They will be forgotten, and soon. Fr Hamel lives forever in the sight of God. And the blood of the martyr is the seed of Christians.
Thirdly, pray for vocations. It is pretty tough to be a priest sometimes. I am sure Fr Hamel must have had many a discouraging moment in his long life of service. But the end of his life was not one of them. The end of his life was glorious, for he shed his blood at Mass, when we celebrate the shedding of the Blood of Christ that redeems the world. He lived the Mass in the fullest sense of the word. His life and death mirrored the Eucharistic sacrifice. So let us pray for vocations – the ones we already have, and for future vocations – that we may all live the call that comes to us in every Mass. Let us deepen our appreciation of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, as that is the best way, perhaps, to foster vocations. Let us all live lives of oblation.
And fourthly, let us pray for converts to Christ and to the Church. This perhaps is the most obvious message of the martyrdom. For consider the actors in this drama. Which would you rather follow: the sadly deluded teenagers, with their cheap trick violence, their brash egotism, their frightful banality, or the good, kind, devoted and gentle priest who lived for God and others? Which way has a future? Which way is better for humanity?
These four points are hardly exhaustive, but a pointer in the direction our prayer should take us, as we contemplate the witness of Fr Hamel. One can pray anywhere, at home, out and about, in your parish Church; but the best place to make this prayer is at the last resting place of Fr Hamel. Wherever he has been buried, there I would like to go – and soon.