We gather here today in the shadow of yet another tragedy in France, yet another evil attack on innocent lives. Today with Christ and His people I offer the Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the soul of Fr Jacques Hamel, the 85-year old who was murdered for his faith yesterday, while celebrating Mass in his parish church of St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France. It is poignant that Fr Hamel was martyred in a place that takes its name from St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, not far from the place of the martyrdom of St Joan of Arc, one of France’s patron saints.
I offer this Mass also for all the victims of terror throughout the world, commending their souls to Almighty God and praying for eternal rest for them; for the injured and traumatised, praying for healing for them and for their families; and for peace and security for all citizens of all nations.
In the early hours of yesterday morning—last night for us—85-year-old priest, Fr Jacques Hamel prepared to say Mass. What he didn’t know was that this would be the last Mass he would ever say: just as he was finishing Mass, two terrorists claiming allegiance to Daesh or ISIS stormed the church, taking Fr Hamel and four others hostage. We don’t know exactly what happened, but one of the nuns who was taken hostage reports that the attackers forced Fr Hamel to his knees and cut his throat before the altar, before proceeding to give a mock ‘sermon’ in Arabic.
Sadly, this is only the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks in France: in fact the fourteenth in two past years. But more than that, it is the latest in a disturbing worldwide trend: in the past month alone, there have been a total of 164 terrorist attacks reported around the world, from the attacks in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 1 July, through suicide bombings in Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, assassinations in Taiwan, shootings in the Congo, and stabbings and bombings in Germany, to name but a few. The frequency of these incidents is stunning: less than a fortnight after the French people reeled from the barbaric attack in Nice, we see them struck again, in what Pope Francis has said could only be described as ‘absurd violence.’
But in taking place “in a Church, in which God’s love is announced, with the barbarous killing of a priest and the involvement of the faithful”, this attack strikes at the heart of all we hold dear. Churches have long been a place of sanctity and refuge: we read in the Old Testament of refuge being taken in the temple (1Kings 1:49-53; 2:28-34), and until the 17th century all churches were a place of legal sanctuary under English Common Law. Through to this day there are countless stories of people taking refuge in churches during natural disasters and in times of war. A church is a place of peace and love, and when he is saying Mass the priest stands in the place of eternal Love, who is Jesus Christ Himself. So this attack is an attack on a particular priest, his congregation, his community, his country; but it also an attack on all priests, all congregations, all communities, all countries because its aim is to undermine people’s sense of security everywhere, freedom of religion everywhere, and our love of peace.
Of course, this is not the first time that a priest or religious has been killed in the service of God: Christian history is the history of the martyrs, and every year the Vatican’s Agenzia Fides releases a list of Christian pastoral workers killed in the past year. As was recently observed, being a priest or religious ‘has become a dangerous job’: Fr Hamel is only the latest of several murdered or kidnapped by ISIS in the last few weeks. Most of these crimes occur in places already experiencing violent conflict, and often it is Muslims themselves who are the victims of such violence wickedly perpetrated in the name of religion.
Yesterday’s attack, however, like the attack in Nice two weeks ago, is an attack on a country at peace, a country which has welcomed huge numbers of immigrants of various religions in recent years, a country in which people expect safely to worship at their local church, synagogue, mosque or temple. The horror of these attacks is heightened by the rupturing of their peace, the disregard for innocent life, especially of the elderly and frail, and the situation a house of God when people were engaged in worship of the God of love.
But love, and faith, and hope will not be cowed by such barbarism. This very morning, a woman in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray rode by the church on her bicycle and shouted out, “We will not be afraid!” This very morning, Mohammed Karabila, President of the Regional Council of Muslims and a friend of Fr Jacques, joined the Catholic community in prayers for his soul. This very morning, the French National Council of Muslims condemned this “terrible and horrifying act” and stated their solidarity with all Catholics in France. The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions called the attack an “odious murder”. Such solidarity gives us hope for the future.
But in calling the murder ‘odious’, our brothers and sisters in monotheism identify another aspect of this evil incident: that Fr Jacques Hamel died in odium fidei, that is, in hatred of the Faith. This is a term Catholics use to describe the characteristic death of a martyr, as one who dies for his or her faith, and because of that faith. Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognise that this is very much an attack on France and on civilisation more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that it was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith. The two terrorists meant to go into a Catholic church; they meant to kill a priest of Jesus Christ; they meant to take nuns and faithful laity as hostages; they were not just looking for any old building with any old people inside. The terrorists underlined the meaning of their act by engaging in a ritual sacrifice of the priest before the altar and a mock homily. So their act was not just murder but also sacrilege, desecration, blasphemy; their motive, not just revenge for the policies of the secular French government but hatred for the Church and its priests and religious even when they are demonstrably friends of Muslims.
St Stephen died with Christ’s own words on his lips, forgiving his persecutors and commending his soul to our merciful Father; the Curé of St Stephen’s likely died in a similar way. All the martyrs are in a sense icons of the passion of Christ. Paradoxically, then, out of an act of hatred comes a demonstration of great love: in dying in odium fidei Fr Hamel has borne witness to the love of God, who suffered evil rather than perpetrate it, who loved us so much He gave His only Son (Jn 3:16).
So today we stand with Fr Jacques and with all those who have given the witness of their lives and deaths, not for a hateful ideology but for faith and hope and love. Together we mourn the senselessness of this violence, we pray for the repose of the souls of all victims of terrorist acts this month past around the world, we intercede for safety and peace in our world. And we do all this, not with heads bowed in fear, but with eyes raised in hope to heaven, towards the promise of eternal life.
This is the homily for the Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 27 July following the terrorist attack in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray in France.