July 30, 2016

The Gentle Fr. Hamel


When the news broke of the horrific murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel at the altar of his church in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the lives—and the deaths—of two other priests came immediately to mind, both as parallels and, to some extent, as consolation.

The first was Archbishop Óscar Romero, who—like Fr. Jacques—was murdered in his own church in the act of celebrating the mass. Romero, who had been made Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, was regarded as a fairly conservative prelate by his colleagues when appointed to his see; but the increasing turmoil and bloodshed in El Salvador at the hands of right-wing death squads, together with government oppression of the church’s work among the poor, motivated him to speak out—frequently and forcefully—against state-sanctioned violence.

Romero became the subject of considerable scrutiny, and worry, on the part of the United States. Zbigniew Brezezinski, then President Carter’s National Security Adviser, was tasked with drafting a letter to Pope John Paul II, asking the pope to intercede with the increasingly influential archbishop in the hope of persuading him to support the regime in San Salvador—rather than the elements of the “extreme left” that Washington feared would align the country with Cuba.

Romero himself was engaged in letter-writing, most famously a missive to President Carter directly requesting that the United States cease military aid to a government that had already murdered, among others, six Catholic priests.

Six weeks later, as Romero took his place behind the altar of a small chapel to celebrate a Monday-evening mass, gunmen entered from the back and assassinated him. No one has ever claimed responsibility, nor has anyone ever been charged with the crime.

The manner in which these two priests were killed—while engaged in the very act that holds central significance for both the claims of their faith and their profession of those claims—make it nearly impossible not to see them as united in martyrdom. But of course Archbishop Romero was a public figure, even something of a celebrity, in the San Salvador of his day—a place that was routinely in the headlines in the last years of the 1970s for its deepening civil war.

By contrast, Fr. Jacques was—meaning no disrespect—unknown and unheralded, in a place undisturbed, at least until this past Tuesday, by the attention of the global media. Ordained at 27, he spent the next sixty years of life that remained to him serving four parishes, all practically within sight of his birthplace.

It’s this simple, profoundly humble fact about his life that brings to mind the second priest, and perhaps one Fr. Hamel himself would have been more familiar with. That priest has no name, but is known to literature as the Curé d’Ambricourt—the priest of a fictional French village who is the narrator, and central character, of Georges Bernanos’ 1934 novel The Diary of a Country Priest.

Bernanos’ novel is written in the form of journal entries authored by a young man embarking on his first solo assignment as a parish priest—a Curé. He relates conversations with a mentor, the jaded, cynical, and avaricious senior priest in the neighboring town; the degrading oversight of the Dean; the torments inflicted by children in the parish who find mild entertainment in his embarrassment; the suspicions of the local nobles when he chooses to do without a housemaid out of a sense of economy; and the complete confusion and hurtful misunderstanding of the members of his parish when he actually aligns his actions with his professed beliefs.

The Curé d’Ambricourt is presented by Bernanos as a man with no ambition whatsoever, other than that of serving the people whose souls have been entrusted to him—and it is this that sets him apart from most of his colleagues in the church, who respond to his simplicity and earnestness with reactions ranging from bemusement to disdain. He has o desire for advancement, no yearning for preferment or fame.

And it is in this quality, this virtue, that he finds a brother in Fr. Jacques. Both men, the fictional Curé and the all-too-real père, pursued their calling in the complete absence of any notice, any celebrity, any notoriety—seeking none and wanting none. Both carried with them their own doubts, their own fears, their own struggles to reconcile the claims and the hopes of their faith with the realities and despairs of the world. And both of them, noticed only after their death, bear profound witness to the grace of lives given, wholly gently to the simple idea of the power of love to redeem all-too-human failures—contempt, fear, despair, intolerance, even hate—into something of possibility and promise.

Near the closing pages of his journal, knowing he is dying from cancer, the Curé d’Ambricourt writes these words:

Before I realized my fate, I often feared I should not know how to die when the time came, as there is no doubt I am too impressionable…. But I have no qualms about that now. I can understand how a man, sure of himself and his courage, might wish to make of his death a perfect end. As that isn’t in my line, my death shall be what it can be, and nothing more. Were it not a very daring thing to say, I would like to add that to a true lover, the halting confession of his beloved is more dear than the most beautiful poem. And when you come to think of it, such a comparison should offend no one, for human agony is beyond all an act of love.

It is difficult to imagine a more fitting epitaph to a man who served his whole life in happy obscurity and devoted service, helping countless people seek the peace and assurance their hearts longed for only to be denied that same peace himself in his own dying moment. I hope the outrage of Fr. Jacques’ courageous death does not overshadow the example of his compassionate life—for that, and that alone, will give us a light to guide us out of the engulfing darkness of blood-soaked hate.