They were people just like us, doing the most innocent and human of things: eating with family at a restaurant, working in a pizzeria, cheering at a football friendly, having a drink with friends in a bar, singing and dancing at a rock concert. Then evil struck and the beautiful city of Paris was defaced by violence and gore. 132 dead so far, 350 injured, many of them critically.
This was an attack on innocent human beings. It was assault, also, on humanity, on every aspect of human flourishing: human life and health, family and friendship, work and leisure, freedom and security; on truth, beauty and goodness. It was an assault, also, on religion: for to attack everything good, everything sacred, is to attack the God who gives us such things. To add insult to injury, to add blasphemy to insult, Daesh claim to do such things in God’s name.
The world looks on, appalled, vulnerable, grieving. We know this evil is not localized to one city only. Before the Paris atrocities, in the same twenty-four hours of blood, a suicide bomber in that “Paris of the East” that is Beirut killed 43 and injured 250; another, in Baghdad, killed 18 people at a funeral and injured 41. Sydney now joins Paris in horror, even as Paris joins Beirut in grief. We’ve lit our Opera House in Le Tricolore of France, in solidarity in grief and determination. All that is best in French civilisation, including its deep Christian roots, cries out for better than this. It cries out for a world in which people may flourish, in genuine liberty, equality and fraternity; a world in which people are not merely left alone to flourish – which is already more than the black-flagged haters will allow – but actually assisted to flourish, as red, white and blue promise. The merchants of terror may care little for life and liberty, family and friendship, truth and beauty, faith and goodness. But we will never repudiate these things: indeed, we recommit to them this night.
When I contacted my friend, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, to express heartfelt condolences on behalf of the Catholic people and all friends of France in Australia and to promise this Mass tonight with our civic and religious leaders and people, for the repose of the dead and healing for the living, his answer was very simple: others have suffered too; these horrors we are experiencing will only deepen our commitment to a faith that unites rather than divides, to ideals that build peace.
In my exchange with Cardinal Vingt-Trois I noted the perversity of these attacks occurring in the very week the French people celebrate Martinmas, their national feast, which is also Armistice Day. Who is this Martin they celebrate? Named for Mars, the god of war, he was a fourth century Roman cavalry officer, from a long martial line. As a young man he hoped to find glory and contentment in great military victories. But God had other plans for him.
One cold winter’s day he happened upon a naked beggar and was moved to cut his cloak in half and share it with him. That night Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream telling him that He was that poor beggar he’d clothed that day. Martin became convinced he must renounce the soldier’s life and embrace poverty and peace. Providentially his feast day would one day be Armistice Day also; but for now he was court-marshalled for his pacifism. Even as they imprisoned him, his commanders knew this was no cowardice: for Martin had offered to lead the troops into battle, himself unarmed. Often it is those who work for peace who have the greatest fortitude. Eventually discharged, he sought Baptism and a more irenic existence as a monk. As a middle aged man Martin hoped to find peace and contentment in his prayers. But once again God had other plans for him.
Against his will the locals elected him Bishop of Tours. Lured to the city on the pretext that someone close to death needed his prayers, he was taken in chains to the cathedral and ordained bishop! Resigning himself to his new fate, Martin brought to Church governance his military ability to lead and organise men and his monastic ability to calm and coax them. While the Spanish bishops, led by Bishop Ithacius, thought unbelievers and heretics should be threatened, Martin insisted the Christian way must be peace and persuasion. He joined St Ambrose of Milan in excommunicating not the Priscillian heretics with whom he disagreed, but the Christian fanatics who wanted to coerce them.
A story is told of Martin’s contest with the Roman Emperor. Valentinian had forbidden actors to become Christians as he feared losing them from the stage. When Martin stormed into the palace the emperor refused to rise and acknowledge this uninvited guest, let alone give him a hearing. Martin prayed and the emperor’s seat caught fire, forcing him to rise from ‘the hot seat’. Preferring an unburnt rump to the company of comedians he granted Martin’s demand. It’s an amusing story but one that shows how divine grace gradually – if only gradually – tamed and redirected Martin’s fighting spirit: he turned from building the emperor’s kingdom to building God’s, from physical warfare to spiritual, from the violent pursuit of wealth and power to a gentle love of poverty and persuasion. Having submitted externally to the Prince of Peace, Martin was gradually to experience a transformation within. And so by the end of his life, Martin had become the gentle, courteous, humble man Christians liked to remember. The story of the Patron Saint of France shows change is possible, in individual human hearts, until person by person, whole empires are converted from conquest to peace, from hate to love, from violence to respect.
Australians fought beside Frenchmen in a great war on their soil they hoped would end all wars; sadly, we were in the trenches with them again only decades later. The slaughter in those wars is unthinkable. But humanity, long mired in a cycle of extermination and recrimination, was not ruined for ever. Nations were eventually driven to the treaty table, by sheer exhaustion as much as anything else. And by divine grace and human good-will some became peacemakers, builders of that true armistice that is the life of the beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12).
To mark the St Martin’s Day Armistice many people wear poppies. The anguished poem of a Canadian colonel, John McCrae, about the second battle of Ypres in 1915, described the poppies in “Flanders’ Field” – bloodied floral tributes on the graves of countless soldiers, silent memorials and prayers for peace. Now these November poppies have extra resonance. They will recall not only those who fought bravely in public wars, but also innocents slaughtered by cowards in private ones. As Paris squares are bloodied like Flanders’ fields, we must continue to build places of concord.
#PrayforParis and #Prayforpeace are popular hashtags in the wake of these atrocities. We believers must insist that to call on the name of God is to call on the transcendent source of peace, reconciliation and goodness – like Martin of Tour, like Jesus who beatified the gentle, merciful, pure-hearted and peacemakers (Mt 5:1-12). Whatever our faith or politics or national affinities, we must all speak out in favour of peace and love and life, and condemn vicious and lethal parodies of religion, politics or culture. We must all pray for such courage for our civic and religious leaders. And we must ensure that the life of football, cafes and concerts returns to the streets of Paris and Beirut, as Isaiah dreams it will for all humanity in the end (Is 25:6-9). With Paul I am certain that “nothing can really come between us and the love of God” – “even if we are anxious, persecuted, in want”, indeed “even if we are attacked. For these are merely the trials through which we triumph, by the power of Him who loved us,” of Him who is love incarnate (Rom 8:32-39). And blessed, He says, are the peacemakers, they shall be called God’s children.”
This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Requiem Mass for the victims of terror and prayers for peace at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 16 November.