By Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ
I awoke Tuesday morning to the horrific news of the attack in the French town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray by militants associated with ISIS, who invaded a Catholic church in the midst of daily Mass, taking the faithful hostage and murdering an 85-year-old priest, Fr. Jacques Hamel. Though the Church has formal processes for declaring these things, I would not hesitate to say that Fr. Hamel died a martyr, killed as he celebrated Mass by attackers motivated by a hatred of the Catholic faith. In this context, I was particularly struck by these words spoken by a fellow priest who knew Fr. Hamel:
"In spite of his advanced age, he was still deeply engaged in the life of the parish. People often said to him, jokingly, "Jacques, you're doing a bit too much. It's time for you to retire." To which he used to reply, laughing, "Have you ever seen a retired parish priest? I'll work until my final breath." For him, to die while celebrating Mass was a form of consecration, in spite of the dramatic circumstances."
||Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ|
Though he surely did not expect to die as a martyr, there is a sense in which Fr. Hamel's tragic death represented the fulfillment of his priestly vocation; as he wished, he labored until his final breath in offering the sacraments. His death also provides a sobering lesson, as Fr. Ray Blake tersely stated Tuesday: "This is what the priesthood is about. This is what the Mass is about. This is what the Catholic Church is about."
"Jewish institutions in Europe have regularly been targets of extreme violence, with the climate of anti-Semitism becoming so marked that the Jewish Agency has reported significant increases in the number of French Jews making aliyah to Israel. A direct attack on a Catholic church and Catholic clergy in Europe is a new and horrid addition to this history of religious violence. In high-income Western states we tend [to] think of these things as 'something that happens to other people' (or, to other people's priests). One hundred million Christians around the globe are recognized as living in a state of persecution for their faith — but we rarely experience it close to home.If our response is to be constructive, it must begin with the understanding that 'a church of martyrs' is the reality we confront today. And that reality is one that also provides a small sliver of consolation in that, as Pope Francis stated in his meeting with the Ethiopian Patriarch earlier this year: 'The ecumenism of the martyrs is a summons to us, here and now, to advance on the path to ever greater unity.' This attack on the Church in France can help to connect those of us in the West to the suffering of our co-religionists for whom these events are so horridly normal."