On Religion

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015, they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. ... That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

"The two terrorists meant to go into a Catholic church. They meant to kill a priest of Jesus Christ. They meant to take nuns and faithful laity as hostages. They were not just looking for any old building, with any old people inside. And the terrorists underlined the meaning of their actions by engaging in a ritual sacrifice of the priest before the altar and a mock homily. So their act was not just murder, but also sacrilege, desecration, blasphemy."

Yes, Father Hamel had a history of kindness to the Muslim community. But in the end, his death was best described with a term rooted in Christian history, said Fisher, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Hamel died "in odium fidei" -- due to an act committed in "hatred of the faith."

"This is a term Catholics use," he explained, "to describe the characteristic death of a martyr, as one who dies for his or her faith, and because of that faith."

There were, however, Catholics who questioned claims that Hamel's murder was driven by religion, even the radicalized, twisted version of Islam proclaimed by ISIS.

Crucial to this debate was a statement after the murder by Father Federico Lombardi, the recent Vatican spokesman.

Pope Francis, he said, "has been informed and participates in the pain and horror of this absurd violence. ... We are particularly affected because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place where the love of God is proclaimed, with the barbaric killing of a priest."

If the pope called the murder "absurd," then it would be a rush to judgment to call this act "in odium fidei," argued Austen Ivereigh, author of "The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope."

"In describing Rouen murder as 'absurd,' Pope refers to its pointless banality. Don't glorify it/them by ascribing religious etc. motives," wrote Ivereigh on Twitter. "So many of my coreligionists are falling into the trap set by ISIS. Trying to turn Fr Hamel's pointless murder into a sacralized act."

Catholic conservative Phil Lawler sharply disagreed, stressing that the terrorists knew why they killed a priest at a church altar.

"If you believe that he is a martyr, you can't say that his murderers acted irrationally. If you believe that they acted irrationally, you can't call him a martyr," argued Lawler, in a CatholicCulture.org commentary.

"A delusional schizophrenic might kill someone selected at random. That would be a tragedy, but not a martyrdom. The victim might be a wonderful person; he might even be a canonizable saint. But he would not be a martyr, because he did not die as a witness to the faith. Father Hamel did. ... He is not the first such victim; he will not be the last."

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

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