For the past five years, I have carried this prayer card of Fr. Jacques Hamel in my passport holder. The elderly French priest’s martyrdom at the hands of Islamists while he was celebrating mass was very absorbing for me, particularly that summer of 2016.
I’ll never forget when, just days after the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques, Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda addressed the 20,000 English-speaking World Youth Day pilgrims in Krakow saying, “It’s a blessing to be Christian in the Middle East because every day they ask us ‘Why are you Christian? You could be someone else.’ But for us, to be Christian, means to be alive. […] And we know that you are also persecuted Christians because you would like to keep the Christian values. We know Christianity is also being persecuted in your countries. Not in the way that we are, but please hold on to Christ and keep the faith. We need you. If you are strong, we will continue. We need each other.”
Later that same summer, I wrote this paper on Festivity and Freedom, which I began with a quotation from the Archbishop who celebrated the requiem Mass. That Archbishop had said during his homily, “The death of Jacques Hamel summons me to a frank ‘yes,’— no, not a tepid yes — a ‘yes’ to life, as the ‘yes’ of Jacques to his ordination. Is it possible?”
In G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, we find a discussion of this possibility in Chesterton’s juxtaposition between suicide and martyrdom.
About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live.
Five years after Fr. Jacques Hamel’s martyrdom, I continue to reflect on how martyrdom is an affirmation of being – even as it seems to extinguish it; martyrdom bears witness to the fact that there are values and souls that can never be extinguished ultimately.