Your cold-blooded execution, Père Jacques Hamel, on Tuesday mor­n­ing, while you were celebrating Mass in the parish church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, has shocked men and women of good will. Yet another senseless attack, in the wake of other recent killings in Paris, Nice and Munich, Istanbul, Aleppo and beyond.

Despite your age, you continued to be available to all. Your example inspires many of us, men and women of good will, to show selfless generosity and dedicated service to all those who pass our way, whether they are friends or foes.

We, in Malta, had never heard of you. Like many in France, we were oblivious of your long unsung ministry as a priest for 58 years. It is only now, that you have just been killed in hatred of the Christian faith, that your name has reached the ends of cyberspace. Millions have seen you on their screens because some time ago, a parishioner must have recorded some video images of you while you were preaching in church, and, later, greeting young and elderly with a kind smile and a gentle embrace.

Mon Père, little did you ever imagine that your death would have come at the hands of two blood-thirsty teenagers, sworn to the jihad. I am sure you were prepared for your death. I am certain that you forgave your killers as they were about to slit your throat. One of those who witnessed your martyrdom heard you pray: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

The French authorities have once again declared war on the invisible web of terrorists. I am convinced that you do not approve of such knee-jerk reactions and populist oratory. As your archbishop, Mgr Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, said: “As Christians, we are called to counter violence with love”. Following the spontaneous tit-for-tat, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, will make us all blind and toothless.

One of those who witnessed your martyrdom heard you pray: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’

I was moved listening to the grief and dismay shown not only by your parishioners but also by members of other religions, Muslims and Jews alike. Men and women of peace categorically denounce any senseless killing. Such despicable acts only make individuals wolves to each other, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes.

Mon cher Père, I am moved to think that your blood was shed on the altar. What a privileged place to offer your life! Only God knows how many times you celebrated the Eucharist, and repeated with devotion the words: “This is my body given up for you. This is the cup of my blood shed for all for the forgiveness of sins”.

The bread that we eat gives life by being destroyed and consumed. The ‘death’ of the bread is the beginning of life for those who receive it. Jesus is the bread of life. Giving life involves death. Now, the flesh of the Redeemer is once again offered on the altar of history. Interposing one’s own ‘body’ between the innocent and the haughty violent, against the evil-doer and in favour of the peaceful individual, means making one’s own ‘body’ the object of the brutal act of violence.

Père Hamel, well could you celebrate the Eucharist, because the Eucharistic bread in your hands was the bread of justice, peace and forgiveness! Indeed, I humbly ask you: Does the structural sin of society not stain the bread and prevent one from having bread that can be offered in justice, peace and forgiveness?

Your sacrifice answers this question. You have just told the world that bread kneaded in a commitment to the quest of men and women of good will, a commitment to the development of social and economic conditions which are more just, make an authentic offering of the Eucharist, the bread of life, truly possible.

Like countless martyrs from all ages, mon Père, you have shown that it is truly worth living a Christian life. Many talk about the senseless act of your murder, while few may understand the nobility of your martyrdom. You were martyred on July 26, 2016. Yet, your 85-year-long journey to martyrdom was undoubtedly marked by many hidden acts of self-offering, self-forgetfulness, unstinting altruism and prophetic witness. You must have sown many seeds of Christian love among the people you met or asked for your help.

Although I join the world in condemning your brutal murder, I thank the Lord for your martyrdom, Père Hamel. Your blood invigorates Christians and inspires people of other faiths. We need your witness in these dark moments. I wish I could say Je suis Jacques Hamel!

Fr Hector Scerri is deputy dean of the Faculty of Theology.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us