Whether priest or laity, there are moments in life that one is never prepared to confront, such as a hostage taking during daily Mass. Or, worse, the priest celebrating Mass being martyred in front of one’s eyes. This is true whether this occurs in a town in Syria or Iraq – or a village in Normandy and specifically a town known to my father’s generation, which was part of the liberation of France in a summer 72 years ago…the summer of 1944…the summer when Father Jacques Hamel was a boy of 13.
Exactly fifty years after the heroic service of my father and my uncle in World War II, I found myself in Father Hamel’s part of France, having been sent there by my archbishop for a period of service. My time in that very special part of France was one of the more incredible chapters of my priesthood – and so the murder of Father Hamel touched me in a very personal way and on many levels.
Each day brings so many events into our daily lives that require our attention…often from early morning until late at night, often with others depending upon us, and we are, understandably, very preoccupied. I dare say most of us have no expectation, as we go about our daily obligations, of facing a martyr’s death, from one moment to the next, because we are Christians.
But I can say that expectation was no less true for the men and women recently attending morning Mass in the town of Saint Etienne du Rouvray…a town near where American troops landed in the summer of 1944 to begin the liberation of a continent and the ending of a world war. It is a charming town, not all that far from the graves of many young American men who would not return home but rather await there the Resurrection. They gave their lives in another country so that others might live, might again be free, and might again be safe.
For many, the France of Father Hamel can seem somehow less remote than the Nineveh plain – which is nevertheless home to Christian brothers and sisters whose communities go back to the Church’s first generation. After all, when the persecutor, Saul, experienced conversion and became the apostle Paul, he was sent by the Risen Christ to a house on the street called Straight in Damascus…a city toward which he was headed because of the Christian community residing there. That street is still there today.
Father Hamel’s death is a very stark reminder that the Church is suffering persecution in many places on our planet…and thus many are placed in danger and live in harm’s way. We have an exceptional opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted as well as to partner with those who are bringing relief to the suffering. The relief comes in a very different way from the generation of my father but the opportunity to make a difference is no less real.
Across my years of priesthood, I have experienced the love that people have for their shepherds and for those who, in Christ’s name, provide care. As I mourn the loss of Father Hamel, of the Archdiocese of Rouen, I invite you to join me in giving thanks for his exceptional life and long years of ministry – and for his witness to Jesus Christ unto the very last moment of his life. He is an inspiration to clergy and laity for his fidelity in life and in death.
As we remember him, let us also be mindful of the bishops and priests with whom Solidarity with the Persecuted Church is partnered. They are in harm’s way even as you read this – as they minister to our persecuted brothers and sisters who are themselves in desperate need. All of them are in need of each of us being part of their lives in this moment.
This post was written by Father Rodger Hunter-Hall, board member of SPC
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