In the midst of recounting the stories of several priests martyred during the recusant or penal era in England here on my blog, I read early Tuesday morning about the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel, the 86 year old retired priest. He was decapitated on the altar while saying Mass in Sainte-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy--a community and a church named for the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen the Deacon. Two radicalized jihadists took the small congregation hostage and brutalized the elderly priest. People have proclaimed him a martyr. He certainly suffered and died because he was a Catholic priest, but is he a martyr?
Jimmy Akin at Catholic Answers provides some background, citing a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in 2006:
It is of course necessary to find irrefutable proof of readiness for martyrdom, such as the outpouring of blood and of its acceptance by the victim. It is likewise necessary, directly or indirectly but always in a morally certain way, to ascertain the "odium Fidei" [hatred of the faith] of the persecutor. If this element is lacking there would be no true martyrdom according to the perennial theological and juridical doctrine of the Church. The concept of "martyrdom" as applied to the Saints and Blessed martyrs should be understood, in conformity with Benedict XIV's teaching, as "voluntaria mortis perpessio sive tolerantia propter Fidem Christi, vel alium virtutis actum in Deum relatum" (De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione, Prato 1839-1841, Book III, chap. 11, 1). This is the constant teaching of the Church.
Akin provides a translation of the statement in Latin from Pope Benedict XIV ("The voluntary enduring or tolerating of death on account of the Faith of Christ or another act of virtue in reference to God.") As Akin analyzes our knowledge of the horrible attack:
As the most recent Benedict makes clear, it is necessary not only to ascertain the odium Fidei or hatred of the Faith on the part of the killer but also “irrefutable proof of readiness for martyrdom, such as the outpouring of blood and of its acceptance by the victim.”
This is what we do not yet appear to have regarding the death of Fr. Hamel.
That he was killed in hatred of the Faith may be regarded as certain. ISIS-linked killers entering a church and killing a priest while saying Mass is a clear sign of hatred of the Faith (barring a truly bizarre and improbable set of circumstances, such as the priest had somehow personally wronged them and they killed him for that reason).
What needs to be established for proof of martyrdom is that Fr. Hamel voluntarily endured or tolerated death on account of the Faith of Christ.
This could be done in a number of ways. For example, it could be done if witnesses in the church gave statements saying that Fr. Hamel faced death saying things like, “I accept my death at your hands for the love of Jesus Christ” or just telling the killers “I forgive you.”
Even apart from such statements, his acceptance of his death for the Faith could be established if he knew that his parish was likely to be targeted by terrorists and he went about his priestly duties anyway, braving the consequences in order to serve others spiritually.
The latter instance seems most likely: the church was on the list of churches targeted by the Islamic terrorists; if the French government hadn't told the pastor, that would be a great injustice.
All the reports are that Father Hamel was a wonderful priest, ordained in 1958, serving his people with the Sacraments and through his compassion long beyond retirement age, urging them to holiness, according to this profile in The Catholic Herald.
Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord, and may his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.
The Catholic priests executed in England during the Recusant or Penal era knew the dangers they faced, as did the laity who assisted them, or became Catholic. They knew their own country's government and official church hated the Catholic faith and that they faced torture and death if they continued in their practice of the faith. They were often offered freedom and even honors if they renounced their faith and attended a Church of England service.
Image: Paolo Uccello's "Stoning of St. Stephen".