Observing the tragic news from the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the usual thoughts come to mind: the increasing frequency of these events, the implications for the upcoming French elections (particularly increased support for the far right Front National), and deep concern as to what increasingly appears to be something more akin to a form of domestic insurgency in Europe rather than terrorism.
Jewish institutions in Europe have regularly been targets of extreme violence, with the climate of anti-semitism becoming so marked that the Jewish Agency has reported significant increases in the number of French Jews making aliyah to Israel. A direct attack on a Catholic church and Catholic clergy in Europe is a new and horrid addition to this history of religious violence. In high income, western states we tend think of these things as “something that happens to other people” (or, to other people’s priests). One hundred million Christians around the globe are recognized as living in a state of persecution for their faith – but we rarely experience it close to home.
So, how do we respond to this as we work through emotions of shock, anger, and sadness? The murder of this parish priest by two men shouting “Daesh!” in Normandy reminded me of Pope Francis’ statements over the last year on the topic of martyrdom. In a homily in 2015, referencing the death of St. Stephen, he explains:
“These days how many Stephens there are in the world! Let us think of our brothers whose throats were slit on the beach in Libya; let’s think of the young boy who was burnt alive by his companions because he was a Christian; let us think of those migrants thrown from their boat into the open sea by other migrants because they were Christians; let us think – just the day before yesterday – of those Ethiopian assassinated because they were Christians … and of many others. Many others of whom we do not even know and who are suffering in jails because they are Christians … The Church today is a Church of martyrs: they suffer, they give their lives, and we receive the blessing of God for their witness.”
If our response is to be constructive, it must begin with the understanding that “a church of martyrs” is the reality we confront today. And that reality is one that also provides a small sliver of consolation in that, as Pope Francis stated in his meeting with the Ethiopian Patriarch earlier this year: “The ecumenism of the martyrs is a summons to us, here and now, to advance on the path to ever greater unity.” This attack on the Church in France can help to connect those of us in the West to the suffering of our co-religionists for whom these events are so horridly normal.
At the same time, we should reflect on the meaning of martyrdom. A good place to start is with the words of John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Spelendor:
“Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved. Jesus warns us most sternly: “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? ” (Mk 8:36).
Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever “human meaning” one might claim to attribute, even in “exceptional” conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity,” in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it. Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life,” as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God.”
Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities.”
Finally, as Pope Francis has noted, it is essential that “we orient our prayer in order to both receive and to give forgiveness.” Unfortunately, we will probably not be hearing much about this aspect – the most important – in the coming days.