Across the sidewalk from the church in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France, is a nursery with a playground outside. Down the road a bit are shops, cafes and other businesses. The scene of the Rev. Jacques Hamel’s martyrdom is striking because the town is so ordinary and peaceful. It is hard to believe that such a brutal attack could take place here.
I visited just two months after his death on July 26, 2016. I bought flowers from a florist just around the corner to lay a bouquet at the church entrance. I added my flowers to a small memorial there. The florist, trying to hold back tears, told me that Father Hamel had taught her catechism 30 years ago when she was a child. I asked the florist what kind of bouquet she would recommend. She told me that he loved roses, especially red ones—the color of the martyrs.
Before his death, Father Hamel, who usually slept like a baby, was beginning to have recurring nightmares. He would leave the little church that he served in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray and make his way through the town toward his house. The streets were deserted. Suddenly, a group of strangers would ambush him and begin to beat him. He would look around for help, but there was no one there.
Before his death, Father Hamel, who usually slept like a baby, was beginning to have recurring nightmares.
The 85-year-old Father Hamel confided this nightmare to his sister months before his murder. Roselyn, who did not attach much importance to it at the time, told her brother Jacques: “I’m the one who has the nightmares. You’ve stolen them from me!”
Father Hamel often told his sister of his admiration for the Rev. Charles de Foucauld, the great martyr in the desert at Tamanrasset, Algeria. Father de Foucauld lived among the Tuareg people and was also known for his charity, gentleness and spirituality. Father Hamel, who rarely went to see movies, attended a screening of the film “Of Gods and Men,” a story about the monks at Tibhirine, also in Algeria, who suffered a similar fate at the hands of Islamist fanatics in 1996.
“How is it,” he asked his sister, “that these men could act with such vicious violence against these men who had lived in their community doing nothing but serving the poor, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Is it because the devil had entered into their hearts and minds, and they became numb to all charity and compassion?”
Jacques Hamel was born on Nov. 30, 1930, in the town of Darnétal in Normandy in the northern region of France. His parents divorced when he was still a child, and he and his siblings grew up with their mother in great poverty. He exhibited extraordinary piety at a young age. He would assist at funerals at his local parish whenever possible. He was a member of the choir early on and loved chant. His mother found him once in a shed out in their garden pretending to celebrate Mass using makeshift altar.
The young Hamel felt drawn to be a missionary with the Missionaries of Africa, known as the White Fathers because of their robes. But he was told that, due to his poor health, that was not a possibility. He instead became a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Rouen and served his congregations faithfully for several decades.
Father Hamel was known for his good memory, his discretion and his compassion for others.
Father Hamel was known for his good memory, his discretion and his compassion for others. When troubled souls would approach him, he would seek to heal their wounds without being judgmental. He sought to help those on the margins. His sister said that, since the age of 7, she never heard him complain about anything. He enjoyed a deep interior peace in which others found refuge.
The morning of the martyrdom was like any other. Father Hamel woke at 7 a.m., as was his custom, recited the prayer invoking the protection of St. Michael the Archangel, read from his breviary and went to the bakery to buy bread for his breakfast. He left the rectory around 8:30 a.m. and walked about a quarter of a mile to the church where he was due to celebrate the 9 o’clock Mass.
When Father Hamel arrived, there was a small but committed congregation—three Vincentian sisters, a married couple of 64 years and another layperson. It was during the Prayers of Petition that two Islamic State-inspired perpetrators barged in, knocked Father Hamel down and slit his throat.
As Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean lunged at him with a knife, Father Hamel exclaimed, “Va t’en Satan!” (“Get away, Satan!”). The priest saw in this heinous attack not the work of merely confused youth or fanatic religious ideology but that of the Father of Lies. Indeed, what else could instill the hearts and minds of young men with such hatred as to murder a priest, unknown to them, in cold blood, while he was celebrating Mass?
The priest saw in this heinous attack not the work of merely confused youth or fanatic religious ideology but that of the Father of Lies.
After forcing Guy Coponet to hold a video camera and record the assassination of his priest, one of the attackers calmed down and asked one of the religious sisters present, Sister Hélène Decaux, “Are you afraid to die?” She said no. Surprised by her answer, he asked why. “Because I believe in God, and I know I will be happy,” she said. He then murmured, “I believe in God, too, and I am not afraid to die.” Then he exclaimed, “Jesus is a man, not God!” Sister Decaux found the theological discourse surreal. The authorities were summoned and when the two young attackers attempted to leave the church, they were shot dead.
There was a fatal mix of fragile psyches, an existential void, religious ignorance and hateful rhetoric that were exploiting the vulnerability of these youths, according to Sister Danièle Delafosse, one of the Vincentian sisters present during Father Hamel’s murder. Yet the hatred was not fueled from within their families, whom she knew. The parents were horrified by what their children did.
The question of immigrants and especially Muslim immigrants has been a hot-button issue in Europe and the West. It played no small part in the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union and has been front and center in recent elections in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Poland as well as the United States.
Muslims attended memorial Masses in large numbers, praying and weeping along with their Christian brothers and sisters.
While far-right parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France have attempted to use attacks by Islamist extremists to reinforce their xenophobic rhetoric, more moderate voices such as Angela Merkl of Germany have tried to defuse the charged atmosphere by distinguishing between a few fanatics and the vast majority of peaceful and law-abiding Muslim immigrants and citizens. It appears that, at least in the cases of Germany and France, tolerance has prevailed.
In France, following the murder of Father Hamel, members of Muslim and Christian communities sought a forum of encounter and reconciliation. Muslims attended memorial Masses in large numbers, praying and weeping along with their Christian brothers and sisters. A beautiful painting of Father Hamel by Omar Moubine, a Muslim believer and a native of Tour, was widely circulated.
In the community of St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the mosque reached out to the Catholic community to condemn the attack and profess its solidarity with its neighbors. Although some of the extremists in both the Muslim and Christian camps attempted to exploit Father Hamel’s murder for their own political and ideological ends, the overall reaction was one of mutual support, forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation.
The most poignant reflections on the attack and its aftermath come from the people who were directly affected by Father Hamel’s death. Janine and Guy Coponet, the married couple who witnessed those last moments of the priest’s life, have forgiven the perpetrators and are praying for their families. Father Hamel’s sister, Roselyn, stated that she does not hold the Muslim community collectively responsible and during a prayer service went to speak with them and console them. She said the community was both surprised and immensely relieved that she did not hold this crime against them.
Extraordinary things happen within the ordinary setting of daily life. Nobody knew what would transpire the day that Father Hamel was murdered at the altar except for God. Father Hamel was not seeking martyrdom—it came to him. But now that the terrible event has occurred, can God not bring about a greater good from it?
This is the true effect of the blood of the martyrs: sowing the seeds of faith that then grow into flowers of love. If Father Jacques Hamel is officially declared a martyr and saint by the church (something which Pope Francis has stated that he earnestly desires), it will be as a result of an exemplary life lived for God and neighbor. The blood that Father Hamel spilled beckons unity, not division; peace, not war. The work of Europe’s first martyr of the 21st century could be just beginning.