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‘Do not think holiness is not for us’: a profile of Fr Jacques Hamel

Tributes at the city hall entrance close to the home of Father Jacques Hamel (AP)

Fr Jacques Hamel, murdered yesterday by Islamist terrorists at the age of 85, has been called the first priest-martyr of Western Europe in the 21st century.

But before his death, he insisted that holiness lay in ordinary life.

On All Saints’ Day last year, he wrote in the parish newsletter: “Do not think holiness is not for us.” He told parishioners that holiness did not necessarily mean “doing extraordinary things”, but could mean living a simple existence like that of the Martin family.

Noting that Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, had recently been beatified, Fr Hamel said: “Their life was simple, like many of our families. But their whole existence was oriented towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Their only desire was ‘to serve God first’.

“They experienced painful circumstances, but they stayed the course through their faith, which was nourished by the sacraments and prayer, the service of the poor and self-abandonment to a God who never ceases to support us.”

By our baptism, said Fr Hamel, “we are sons and daughters of God. It is by living this relationship, day by day, that we become saints.”

Fr Hamel was said to be a quiet man, a priest widely liked for his gentleness and constant availability. “He was always serving people,” one parishioner told L’Express.

Fr Hamel was born in upper Normandy, only a few miles away from where his life would end, on November 30, 1930. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1958 and spent his life in five Normandy parishes in turn.

Outside his priestly duties, he was involved in interfaith dialogue: one generous tribute came from Mohammed Karabila, a local Muslim leader, who said he was “appalled by the death of my friend”, and described the priest as “a man of peace, of religion, with a certain charisma. A person who dedicated his life and his ideas to his religion. He sacrificed his life for others.”

In an Easter reflection earlier this year, Fr Jacques said that Jesus “went to the end of love” by dying, and quoted John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

From the tributes, a picture emerges of a warm and conscientious character, perhaps rather shy – “He was very discreet and didn’t like to draw attention to himself”, according to one local – and someone dedicated to his ministry. Fr Hamel was given the chance to retire at the usual age of 75, but decided that (partly because of the priest shortage) he ought to carry on.

Fr Hamel earned the respect of his fellow-priests. Fr Aimé-Rémi Mputu Amba, who had lunch with him every week, told Le Figaro that Fr Hamel was “a ray of sunshine” whenever he came into the room.

When Fr Amba teased him about retirement, Fr Hamel replied: “Have you seen a retired priest? I will work until my last breath.”

A diocesan official told AP that Fr Hamel “was always ready to help” and that “his desire was to spread a message for which he consecrated his life.”