Christians and non-believers alike reacted with horror in recent days when Rev. Jacques Hamel had his throat slit in Normandy by a terrorist act claimed by ISIS. Peacefully celebrating Mass, the 86-year old priest was murdered, after which the perpetrators exclaimed, “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is the greatest”). This priest joins the legions of martyrs throughout our Church’s history, men and women who were killed because of their faith.
Upon hearing this news, like other recent events of terrorism, I mourned the loss of life and the hardness of heart of the persecutors. In addition, though, I reacted in a way that surprised myself…I felt a bit envious. But certainly, I thought, none of us would wish to be murdered in such a brutal way. Life is a wonderful gift, given to us by God and I have no desire for my life to end anytime soon.
And yet, we look to the martyrs’ witness for a reason. They are welcomed into Heaven for giving their life for the Lord.
When we look further at the glory of martyrdom, it becomes clear that martyrs are not seeking death—they are seeking God. After all, many martyrs—such as Fr. Jacques—did not know they were headed towards their death. Rather, in the words of Archbishop Gomez “Martyrs are not defined by their dying but by what they choose to live for.”
While martyrdoms have been occurring since Christianity began, and many have occurred worldwide in recent years, for many Westerners, the death of Fr. Jacques in France may hit nearer to home. Here he was, with his parishioners, just doing what he had no doubt done for his entire priesthood: celebrating Mass in the parish church. The day of his death was like any other day.
Recent terror attacks have been aimed at people whose values are markedly different than the perpetrators. Think of the many people celebrating Bastille Day who were so brutally mowed down by a truck. Hatred of Western ideals, and yes of our Catholic faith, is a central motivation of recent bouts of terror. And let us not forget that this French attack is not the first recent terrorist attack to result in martyrs—the Church in Africa has suffered much lately from Islamist extremists.
The choice to celebrate Mass as a priest or even to attend Mass as a parishioner perhaps never struck us as risky before. Yet, now, it is not far fetched to think that a terrorist situation like the one in France could happen to us. ISIS has, after all, blatantly said they are targeting the U.S. and countries allied with us. Will we continue to practice our faith as openly, to value “the source and summit of our faith” above even our own lives?
Tertullian famously said that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Maybe some of us will be called to give our lives for our faith, but no doubt many of us will not be. Still, the recent witness of martyrs prods me to ask this question: “When my death comes—in whatever form—will I be living for God?”
This challenge to be ready to die a holy death echoes, of course, the words of Jesus Christ Himself who said, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). How true that was for the parishioners of Fr. Jacques church in France!
And so we return to the reason why some of us, as Christians, might have reacted to Fr. Jacques death with a feeling akin to envy. When Christ comes for me, I do want to be ready, as Fr. Jacques was! But since none of us knows when our death will come, this requires not only vigilance, but a consistent acceptance of God’s grace to grow in holiness, in a life that is dedicated to Him.
Can we honestly say, as martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe did, “For Jesus Christ, I am prepared to suffer still more”? Honestly, sometimes I’m not even prepared to wake up when my toddler calls out for me for the 4th time in the middle of the night or to find time during the day to pray. Yet, this is what God asks of us—to be ready to live for Him, so that we can die for Him.
Fr. Jacques’ martyrdom will no doubt see fruit in the Church. May we be inspired by his example of living out the vocation to which God called him. If we choose God in each day, in each moment than the powerful words of St. Justin Martyr cannot help but prove true, “You can kill us but you cannot do us any real harm.”
Fr. Jacques Hamel, Pray for Us