Three years ago, a French police officer traveled to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne d’Auray near the Brittany coast, seeking yet another change in his already eventful life.
Arnaud Beltrame made his pilgrimage to offer prayers that he would meet “the woman of his life.” Soon afterwards, he met Marielle Vandenbunder and they celebrated their engagement in 2016 -- at Easter. They were married a few months later.
That was a secular union. Arnaud and Marielle wanted more time to prepare for a truly Catholic marriage, according to Father Jean-Baptiste of the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse in southern France. The wedding was set for June 9, 2018.
Father Jean-Baptiste was at their side all through that process. He was also at their side performing last rites -- hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week -- when Lt. Col. Beltrame died shortly after a sacrificial act that caused mourning across France.
French President Emmanuel Macron was blunt, stating that by “giving his life to end the murderous escapade of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero.”
Pope Francis sent his condolences to the families of those killed and injured when a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter attacked a supermarket in Trebes. The pope singled out the “generous and heroic” act by Beltrame, who offered himself as a substitute for a female hostage the gunman was using as a human shield.
The 45-year-old officer entered the standoff alone and placed his cellphone -- the line open -- on a table, allowing police to listen in. After two hours, officers heard gunfire and rushed inside, killing the gunman. The fatal blow to Beltrame was a knife stab to the neck.
In a lengthy interview with Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), Father Jean-Baptiste went much further than the pope when linking Beltrame’s heroism with his pilgrimage to faith.
The officer “knew the incredible risk he was taking. He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness,” said the monk (transcript translated online from French).
“Was he allowed to take such a risk? It seems to me that only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice, which is today the admiration of all,” he said. “He understood, as Jesus told us, that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends. ... He knew that if his life belonged to Marielle, it also belonged to God, to France, and to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.”
News reports focused on a faith-free Beltrame timeline. Macron noted that he served in Special Forces in Iraq in 2005 and received an award for bravery. For four years, Beltrame was a Republican Guard commander providing security at Elysee Palace, the president’s home. In 2012, he was knighted into France’s Legion of Honor; after his death, his Legion rank was elevated to the prestigious “Commander.”
The Associated Press said: “Beltrame’s entire career seemed to lead inexorably to the moment when he responded to the attack.”
Father Jean-Baptiste insisted on adding other details, noting that Beltrame was raised in a nonreligious family, but experienced a “genuine conversion” at age 33. He entered the church in 2010, after two years of study. Beltrame was, the monk said, “intelligent, sporty, loud and lively,” a man who shared his faith with others.
On this side of the Atlantic, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia underlined the symbolism of this story. In a column entitled “A Lesson For Holy Week,” he said Beltrame was a civil servant doing his job and a “man in love getting ready for a wedding.” He was also a “man who deliberately shaped and disciplined his own life until it became a habit, a reflex, to place the well-being of others before his own.”
The archbishop concluded: “God’s ways are not human ways. They are other than ours; higher and better, more powerful, moving, and redemptive than our own. It isn’t logical, it isn’t ‘normal,’ for anyone to place his or her life in harm’s way for a friend, much less for a complete stranger as Arnaud Beltrame did. Only a special kind of love can make a person do something so unreasonably beautiful.”
(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.)