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Martyrdom in a place named for St. Stephen


Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 07/26/16

Someone made this observation earlier today on Twitter:

I doubt the murderers were aware of the symbolism of killing a cleric in a church dedicated to St Stephen

It hadn’t realized it—it’s been a long time since I took high school French— but in fact the town where Fr. Jacques Hamel was slaughtered is named Saint-Étienne, which translates in French as a variation of Saint-Etiève or Saint Stephen.

The town is a suburb of Rouen—which is where another famous martyr (and patroness of France), Joan of Arc, gave her life for the faith.

As this long and difficult day has dragged on, more details like that have bubbled up.

The New York Times, in a prominent story, reported on the life and tragic death of Fr. Hamel:

“He could have retired at 75 years old, but seeing how few priests were around he decided to stay and work, to continue to be of service to people, up until it all ended, tragically,” the Rev. Auguste Moanda-Phuati, the parish priest of the Église St.-Étienne, where Father Hamel worked as an auxiliary priest, said in a phone interview. “He was loved by all. He was a little like a grandfather. We were happy when he was around and worried when we hadn’t seen him in a while.”

…The Rev. Alexandre Joly, a priest from a nearby parish, expressed horror at the killing of Father Hamel. “It’s the moment when the priest is giving this act of love, that he is killed,” Father Joly said. “It’s incomprehensible.” He described Father Hamel as “very kind” and “someone whom no one could hate.”

The Rev. Philippe Maheut, the vicar general of the archdiocese of Rouen, said the attack was “as though lightning has hit us.”

Speaking in front of the town hall, Father Maheut said of Father Hamel: “He was joyous, sometimes anxious, like those who want everything to be done well. He was a humble, gentle person. He came here to be of service. What really impressed people was that, at that age, he still had the will to serve. He was fully engaged with the community, and very much appreciated. People appreciated his humility.”

Press reports noted that there is a surprisingly close relationship between Muslims and Catholics in the town: the mosque was built on land donated by the Catholic parish—and this morning’s tragedy left the region’s leading Muslim in shock:

The President of the Regional Muslim Council of Haute-Normandie, in charge of the mosque in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, said he was “appalled by the death of my friend,” the priest Jacques Hamel, killed Tuesday morning in his church during a hostage taking. “I do not understand, all of our prayers are with his family and the Catholic community,” said Mohammed Karabila. “This is someone who has given his life to others. We are stunned at the mosque,” he said. The priest and the imam met several times “during public interventions in party rooms.” “We are part of an” Interfaith Committee for 18 months. We discussed religion and manners together, “said Mr. Karabila.

Back in this country, the head of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, released a statement:

Catholic faithful around the world experienced the shock and sadness of this morning’s barbaric attack on Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in France, as if the loss was in our very own parish. We pray for Father Hamel and his parishioners knowing, as St. Paul stated regarding the Body of Christ, “if one suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) The Holy Mass is the most sacred and joyful act we, as Catholics, celebrate. Never are we closer to our Lord Jesus Christ than we are when we receive the Eucharist. No act of desecration – no matter how vile – can obscure the merciful presence of God. Jesus calls us to be sisters and brothers, to strive to care for one another, and always to reject the evil that seeks to divide us. We give thanks to God for the unforgettable witness of the faithful this morning at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

On top of all this, the day ended with a dire warning to other churches around the world:

London is next on the list of target cities for twisted jihadis along with the US capitol Washington DC, it has been claimed. Images threatening attacks in London and other major world capitals have been posted on jihadi messaging app Telegram, according to SITE Intelligence Group. One picture chillingly shows New York’s Statue of Liberty engulfed in flames but with the caption “Washington soon” – referring to the US capital 225 miles away. The threat comes as security at British churches is being ramped up amid a new terror alert after ISIS knifemen forced a French priest to kneel before slitting his throat on camera.

Worth noting: the French bishops have designated this Friday, July 29, as a Day of Fasting. 

We live in a time when tragedies like this are too frequent, and the shock too recognizable and familiar, and the anguish of our age sometimes feels like just too much to bear. It is. We can’t carry it alone. None of us can. So it is that our hearts and our hopes turn to God’s tender mercies during this Year of Mercy. We pray for respite.

We pray for peace.

We pray, too, for protection and guidance and strength:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen
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