August 5, 2016

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Slain French priest can inspire us all to be witnesses to the Gospel

No one would have blamed Father Jacques Hamel for living in quiet retirement. He was an 85-year-old French priest, who had ministered faithfully for 58 years. If he had asked to retire from public ministry, no one would have batted an eye. In fact, he would have been praised for his long-standing fidelity to priestly ministry.

But he, like so many other priests around the world, knew that being a priest is more about who he is than what he does. It’s a calling that shapes the entirety of one’s life. Conformed to Christ at his ordination in 1958, he was “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17). He knew that in his heart and soul, telling a fellow priest that he would serve “until my last breath.”

On July 26, Father Hamel did what priests do. He celebrated Mass in the parish church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in northern France. During that Mass, though, two men stormed into the church shouting allegiance to the Islamic State. According to an eyewitness, they forced Father Hamel to kneel before the altar and then proceeded to slash his throat.

His last breath happened during a Mass, which is at the heart of the priesthood to which Father Hamel had dedicated his life.

The jihadists subsequently took the small congregation hostage, severely injuring one of them. They were eventually shot and killed by French police.

Father Hamel, who had been such a faithful witness to Christ in his life, was also a faithful witness to Christ in his death. He was and remains a martyr, the Greek word for “witness” used from the earliest days of the Church to refer to people who died for their faith.

Some 1,800 years ago, the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It was a pithy summary of the fact that the more Christians suffered for the Gospel at the hands of Romans and other early persecutors, the more people were drawn to the faith.

In that spirit, may the blood of Father Hamel help the Christians of today around the world be renewed and strengthened in their faith, and to draw others to it or back to it. This would be especially fitting in Father Hamel’s France, once so strong in the faith, which over the decades of his priestly ministry became much more secularistic.

To carry out this mission of growing the faith, we have to put ourselves at risk. In most cases, we will not face death like Father Hamel did. But it can mean that we open ourselves to people we might ordinarily feel uncomfortable around. If Jesus spent time with public sinners and gentiles in his day, could we not reach out, say, to convicts, immigrants and others at the margins of society?

It can also mean that we risk putting our social fears aside and witness to our faith through our words and deeds in own society which, like France, is becoming more secularistic. It’s easy today to hide one’s faith and act as if it doesn’t exist. It’s harder to be a public Christian.

But the grace of God flows through the blood of martyrs like Father Hamel to help us who live on to grow in our own faith. Let us grab hold of that grace and be clearer witnesses to the Gospel here and now.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion.)

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