Today two gunmen entered the church of Saint Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy and killed Fr Jacques Hamel while he was celebrating Mass for a group of religious sisters.
This came as horrifying news to all peace-seeking humans, but it sends a particular chill down the spines of the European Christian community. If them, could it be us? It is only right though, that in the midst of our anxiety and mourning, to remember that attacks like this are common place for many of our sisters and brothers around the world.
The Catholic hierarchy have responded to this attack in a predictably compassionate manner. As the the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, said: “The Catholic Church cannot take weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among men.”
On hearing this news many have called Fr Hamel a martyr. This language is not surprising but brings with it various issues. The key questions being, ‘what is a martyr?’ and, ‘does Fr Hamel’s death make him a martyr?’
What is a martyr?
Within the church’s history the term martyr, coming from the Greek μάρτυς, has a fluid definition. Although today we use the word to mean ‘one who dies for the Gospel’, it was originally meant as ‘one who bear witness to having seen the resurrection’ and then shifted to ‘one who suffers for the Gospel’.
Strathmann roots martys as, ‘one who remembers, who has knowledge of something by recollection, and who can thus tell about it.’ Where μάρτυς is used in the New Testament it denotes those who are witnesses to a true event in legal cases (1 Timothy 5:19) and also to those who a witness to the truth of the resurrection as Good News (Luke 24:48). This is developed in Luke’s account of Paul’s words, ‘for you will be his martys to the world of what you have seen and heard’ (Acts 22:15).
The political and religious climate of the early church meant that witnessing to the Good News inevitably meant suffering and possibly even death. It is not surprising therefor that for Paul there is a clear link between suffering and witnessing,
‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ 2 Cor 4:8-10
As an increasing amount of men & women were killed for witnessing to the salvation they had found in their Lord Jesus the term ‘martyr’ came to mean ‘one who dies for the Gospel’, our common usage today.
Does Fr Hamel’s death make him a martyr?
Was Fr Hamel killed by likely Islamic extremist because of his Christian faith or because his faith symbolises ‘The West’ which they despise? It is not clear. Perhaps over the next few days as the other hostages share what happened this will become clearer. But it is helpful for us to use the early church’s definition of martyr, ‘one who bears witness to having seen the resurrection’ and apply it to this case.
I would suggest that Fr Hamel was already a martyr when he woke up this morning, the day of his murder. Why? Because by his very action of going to preside at that day’s Mass he was bearing witness to the Resurrection. His life was a bearing witness to the Good News, his death merely confirmed what was already true.