The New York Times waited two days. On the morning of July 26, 84-year-old Fr. Jacques Hamel was murdered while celebrating Mass when armed Islamists attacked his Catholic parish in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, France. Two days later, the New York Times published an essay by a journalist who hopes that Pope Francis can persuade people who now regard Père Hamel as a martyr not to talk too much about that, or the sainthood his martyrdom implies.
Had “curb your enthusiasm” reservations about chants of “Santo Subito!” (Italian for “Sainthood now!”) come from stalwart clergymen like Robert Cardinal Sarah or Raymond Cardinal Burke, the motivation for those reservations would have been love for the Church. Catholics can legitimately be reluctant to see anyone fast-tracked for canonization. Even bishops who spend more time accommodating the culture than confronting it understand that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints preserves the integrity of what might be called its saint-making machinery by moving slowly.
Unfortunately, Paul Vallely, the author of the NYT piece titled “Leave ‘Martyrdom’ to the Jihadists,” seems motivated by fear and distaste rather than by any desire to safeguard the reputation of the process by which the Church recognizes saints. Vallely has critically acclaimed books about Pope Francis to his credit. But unlike the Italian politician who spoke for many others in suggesting that the pope ought immediately to proclaim Fr. Hamel “Saint Jacques,” Vallely argues that “Such calls to canonize the murdered priest are ill-advised” because “They will only play into the hands of the extremists.”
Aye, there’s the rub, and it’s the same worry articulated by the least convincing bureaucrats in the current administration. If you’ve noticed that fear of provoking lethal tantrums among notoriously touchy “extremists” prevents people from responding effectively to Islamist aggression, you’re not alone. President Obama uses the same argument to justify his feckless unwillingness to associate terrorism with anything Islamic, even when terrorists cite endorsements for their depravities by quoting from the Koran and the Hadith (sayings of Mohammed).
The columnist advising silence knows well that Fr. Hamel’s murder fulfills the traditional Catholic criteria for martyrdom, because he was killed “in hatred of the faith” by assailants who were open about their motivation for killing him. Even so, our columnist asserts, Catholics ought not place Père Hamel in the honorable line that includes other priests “killed in their places of worship” (as he delicately put it). Thomas Becket and Oscar Romero, to name two famous examples, suffered “martyrdoms of defiance” because they knew the dangers they were facing, Vallely writes, whereas Père Hamel was simply “an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness” who was killed while “going about his lifelong business.”
There are several things wrong with that chain of reasoning, including the assumptions that it makes and the evasions it advances. To begin with, who’s to say that “quiet holiness” is incompatible with defiance? Why imply that priests like Thomas Becket and Oscar Romero were proud men killed while taunting their enemies? So far as I know, the Church does not split hairs between “quiet” martyrdoms and “defiant” ones. You either die for the sake of your faith in Jesus Christ or you don’t. Moreover, although you wouldn’t know it from the “workplace violence” connotation of unfortunate phrases like “going about his lifelong business,” Père Hamel’s lifelong business was his Catholic priesthood. That Hamel was humble into the bargain and well-loved by parishioners who joked with him about his working past retirement age mattered not at all to the murderers who profaned the altar where he said Mass before cutting his throat.
Late in his column, Vallely seems to recognize he’s got a hard sell on his hands. “Father Hamel may be a martyr,” he concedes, “but his attackers are also martyrs in the eyes of jihadists.” Not that the rest of us should be fooled: “There is, of course, an egregious false equivalence between the two cases: One man is a pure victim, while the others were killers who contrived to die at the hands of French law enforcers.”
The op-ed got that much right. But it does not follow that “Reciprocal talk of martyrdom is unhelpful.” (Who made “helpfulness” the prime directive, anyway? That sounds like an example of what Lieutenant General Russell Honoré once called “Stuck on stupid.”) Villaley wants us to think that “The impulse to canonize Father Hamel, however sincere and well-intentioned, feeds the idea of retaliation — our martyr for yours — that gives the jihadists the war of religions they seek.”
Horsepucky, Mr. Vallely. In 2015, France endured more than 800 attacks on Christian places of worship and cemeteries, many of which went unreported. Unwillingness to use words like “saint” and “martyr” for a murdered priest who by all accounts is well within the ballpark encompassed by those honorable terms effectively gives jihadists veto power over whom Christians should admire. There is no way on God’s green earth that jihadists can murder their way into that conversation.
Canadian blogger David Warren offered a counterpoint to the simpering of the New York Times: “Previous generations knew who they were,” he wrote, “and were thus capable of understanding when they had been attacked. They had some concept of adulthood. We had men, once. And the thing about men is that they have something to protect, beginning with women and children — and ending, as for that manly priest in France, with that desperate attempt to defend the sacraments.”
Moreover, Christianity has a more ancient claim to martyrdom rightly understood than Islam ever will, because Christianity predates Islam by six centuries. The impulse to canonize Father Hamel feeds the idea of reclamation, not retaliation.
Words mean things, and church words unused are words surrendered to people who don’t know the first thing about them. While it may be premature or misguided to call Père Hamel “Saint Jacques,” no Christian should be chastised for giving voice to the inspiration offered by his life and death.