The murder of a priest at the very altar where he is celebrating Mass – the supreme act of Christian worship – strikes horror in everyone’s hearts. But I think it must be of particular anguish for other priests. For their own priestly lives are dedicated, on altars throughout the world, to re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. The sacrifice of the Mass is unbloody – until, in a rare act of violent theatre, the celebrant is the victim, slain alongside his own altar.
The slaughter of Fr Jaques Hamel, aged 85, by terrorists linked to ISIS, in a quiet suburb of Rouen yesterday, was an act of deliberate outrage against the Christian faith. So many details add to the pathos and sorrow of this barbaric act. Father Hamel could have presented no physical threat to his assailants. Recent photographs show him looking frail and old – but still devoted to his priestly vocation and, although retired, still helping out at the parish where he has been a familiar presence for many years.
His parishioners, who are mourning their loss under such dreadful circumstances, will also be asking themselves if they have undervalued the quiet, loyal service of men like Fr Hamel, now that he has been torn from them. Recent scandals in the priesthood can never detract from the magnificent example of the legions of humble and unassuming parish priests who offer their whole lives to Christ as good shepherds, watching over the spiritual lives of their flock.
Amid all the savagery perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East in recent years, one incident was singled out by our own parish priest last year. He was referring to a murder similar to that of Fr Hamel, when a young priest who was celebrating Mass was rudely interrupted by terrorists, laid out on his own altar and beheaded, in full view of the congregation – which included the priest’s elderly mother.
Our parish priest generally adopts a stoical manner. But as he spoke of this atrocity I detected a sob in his throat; it was obvious he could barely speak for emotion, as he tried to convey how the young priest, acting in persona Christi, had now become wholly identified with Christ’s own bloody sacrifice. I kept thinking of the priest’s mother: the sword that must have pierced her own heart as she watched.
My neighbour, who lives alone, phoned me yesterday. She had watched the news of Fr Hamel’s murder on television and she was crying down the phone. She is an Anglican, so I suggested that she go to our local village church and to pray there. What else can ordinary people do? I too pray – for Fr Hamel’s soul and for all parish priests throughout the world, whose lives usually pass in the unobtrusive daily service of their communities but who might, in an unthinkable but not, alas, now unfamiliar scenario, be called to make the ultimate sacrifice.
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