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The saints’ answer to terrorism

‘Vultures circle overhead’: police guard the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris (PA)

The killing on July 26 of Fr Jacques Hamel, as he said Mass in Normandy, brings sharply to mind the priests the Church has lost to murder across the centuries – in our own times, to mention but a few, San Salvador’s Blessed Oscar Romero; Solidarity’s Blessed Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko; and the seven Cistercians killed by Islamist extremists in their abbey at Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. I think of a Slovenian priest mourning the half of his year’s intake at seminary who never saw the 10th anniversary of their ordinations: they were hunted down by Tito’s communists.

It seems that Fr Jacques, like his patron St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, was a tireless worker in the vineyard of his Lord. Eighty-five years old, he worked on as an auxiliary parish priest, careless of the possibility of retirement.

These men tell us of paradox: the joy of vocation and the suffering of sacrifice; the way of the cross leading to resurrection. They lived in our day the example of Christ.

Such people are witnesses, martyrs, to the truths for which they have died. They teach us that beyond our human estimations of value, our Darwinian approval of conflict and survival (if not winning), there lies a greater order, dimly perceived by the eye of faith, but reaching out further and wider, deeper and more secretly than we can understand, known in mystery only to God, the order of Love.

In the face of such vast realities, the mind bows, silent before what it cannot comprehend. In France this silence is suffused with worry: how much more?

So the temptation is to move back to the here and now, the realisable, the achievable and responsible, and to take on whatever it is can be done to prevent any more such terrible acts. We take advice from security experts, do a round of the stable doors and listen to lawyers who warn of liabilities, of health and safety considerations neglected at peril of litigation. Vultures circle overhead. And no flippant tone is intended. There are heavy imperatives here. The public must be kept safe. This is not any conventional war; no “concept of casualties” (ie acceptable ones) is politically workable.

Here the great Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas comes to our aid. The kind of anxiety and uncertainty terror groups aim to foment is a social construct. This means that the power of the collective fear we construct is considerably diminished if we understand what is going on. We can allow the way we live now to give in to its own vulnerabilities – terrorists strike; we say: “Oh yes, that hurts” – or, instead, we can reach into our faith and draw strength from that deeper order.

Nobody would suggest that violence doesn’t hurt, and on so many levels. But remembering to do two things at once, we also contribute to the social construct another voice, another term of reference. Instead of anxiety, we bring at least the attitude of faith, acknowledging that reality too has its own different levels.

Rather than rushing for barricades beyond our reach, we live peaceably by intending patience and resisting fear. We place ourselves in our own actual moment and not in some big-screen cyber worry, some societal crescendo of outrage.

How this in practice helps the strategic picture is mysterious. What is clear is that, like prayer for intercession, it does work. St John Vianney, pray for us; we pray for Fr Jacques.

Matthew Shadle: Defending the common good

This article first appeared in the August 5 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here