“Until My Last Breath” – The Tragedy & Hope of Father Jacques Hamel
“I’ll work until my last breath,” he laughed.
And he honored those words.
Father Jacques Hamel, beloved 85 year-old priest for St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray parish in Normandy, France, was ruthlessly executed today by devotees of the Islamic State (ISIS) while he celebrated Mass. The murder was macabre in method, unconscionable in motive and has left both a small Catholic church and a larger world shaken with grief and anger.
When I heard this, there were no words. Simply no words.
So I dug into the prison writings of another persecuted and heartlessly executed priest, Alfred Delp, S.J. Deeply devoted to Christ and his Church, the 37 year-old priest refused to renounce his Jesuit faith and subsequently would be tortured and hanged by his Nazi captors in 1945.
But the reason I approached Fr. Delp’s story, like Fr. Jacques Hamel’s, was not his death.
The story was (and is) his life.
As I thumbed through Fr. Delp’s letters, I was struck. Though the letters had been spirited out of an unforgiving and merciless prison, they were filled with sublime reflections on faith, hope and love. In the midst of incomprehensible blackness, there was light. In the presence of inexplicable hopelessness, there was hope. In the depths of apparent Godlessness, there was (and is) the ever-present, endlessly loving Christ.
[The] phrase, hallowed be thy name, teaches us to pray for the worthy ideal, for the unassailable, holy, venerated standard. Unless they have something of supreme value, something at the center of their being which they can venerate, human beings gradually deteriorate. Human nature is so constituted that it must have something holy that it can worship, otherwise it becomes cramped and distorted, and instead of a holy object of veneration something else will take its place. I ought to know for I have just emerged from a murderous dialogue with such a self-appointed object of veneration. These substitute values are far more autocratic and demanding than the living God himself. They have no idea of courtesy or of waiting for their turn…All they know is demand, compulsion, force, threats and liquidation. And woe to anyone who does not conform.
The word of God should evoke and receive the great veneration this phrase suggests: praise, reverence, awe…The name of God is the holy of holies, the central silence, the thing that above all others calls for humble approach. We not only ought to believe in the truth at the center of our being, in the purpose of our existence, but we should also bear testimony to this belief by the proper fulfillment of our life’s purpose. We should subjugate everything to this law of holiness and reject everything that does not harmonize with it. God, the great object of our veneration, will then also be our whole life. “There is no healing in any other name” (Acts 4:12). How little there is to say once we have said this. And how much that is said is mere cant. We have so many pious phrases that are utterly without genuine reverence for God. Religious chastity and silence go well together.
Let us resume the practice of giving names to life and to things. I have been a mere number long enough to know what it means to be nameless and what effect it has on life. As long as life itself has no name, or at least none that it honors, people and things will continue to lose their identity in the dreadful regimentation and anonymity into which we have sunk. Life has a sensitive nervous system through which everything is connected. Since the name of God is no longer the first and foremost of all names in the land and the voice of the people, then everything else that was once precious and prized has lost its name and been subjected to false and falsifying labels. The cliché, the label, the uniform, the slogan, the “dominant trend of the masses” – these are our rulers. And pity the man who dares to differ, to proclaim his own thoughts or use his own name.
Prayer is our way to freedom and education in the method of prayer is the most valuable service that we can give to humankind. It makes it possible for the temple and the altar to again occupy their rightful place and for humanity to humble itself and measure its responsibilities in the name of God.
Let us mourn Fr. Hamel. Let us mourn.
But let us also hope. Let us not fear. Let us honor God…and work until our last breath.
After all, the story is not death.
The story is life.
Fr. Hamel & Fr. Delp, pray for us.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons