Father Jacques Hamel, 85, died doing what he loved most – saying the mass.
Only five parishioners were present at the modest, Tuesday morning service last July 26, three of them nuns of the Order of St. Vincent de Paul dedicated to working with the poor, when two Islamic emissaries of death entered St. Etienne du Rouvray Church in Normandy, northern France, and savagely cut Father Jacques’s throat. The Islamic State later claimed both of these demons as its own in what may be the beginning of a long, slow Kristallnacht for the French Church.
Born in 1930, Father Jacques was long past the age of retirement before his martyrdom. He had celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a priest in 2008, but told the archbishop of Rouen that he intended to serve God and his community “as long as I am able.”
“He never looked for honors,” said the archbishop in his eulogy for Father Jacques at his funeral in Rouen Cathedral. “He did not want to be put forward; he wanted just to meet men, women, children in order to accompany them in the name of Jesus in their spiritual and human life.”
The service was filled to capacity with mourners, ranging from the highest political dignitaries in France to local people he had married and whose children he had baptised as well as saddened strangers.
Everything about Father Jacques spoke of modesty and humbleness. He served as auxiliary priest at St. Etienne Church, living in the presbytery across from city hall. The rector of the parish, Father Auguste Moanda-Phuati, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, described Father Jacques in the French Catholic publication, La Vie, as “an unobtrusive man, rather quiet, but a great listener and welcoming.”
“But…he had been marked by the Second World War and ardently desired that a lasting peace be established on our continent,” Father Moanda-Ohuati stated.
It was not reported why Father Jacques chose to become a priest. But also speaking at his funeral in Rouen Cathedral, his sister, Roselyne Hamel, may have given a possible clue. Her brother, she said in “a speech charged with emotion,” had told her that during his military service in Algeria, he had been the sole survivor of a firefight at an oasis and had afterwards often asked himself: Why me?
“Today, Jacques, our brother,” she continued before the cathedral audience, “you have your answer: the God of love and divine mercy chose you to be at the service of others in order to cultivate love, sharing and tolerance.”
In his last written communication to parishioners in a parish letter last June at the start of the vacation season, the topic of his “simple, peaceful” missive, Father Jacques Hamel reveals the modesty, peace and grace of a soul shaped by war, decades of service to Christ as well as by that desire to render Christian service to others “as long as I am able.”
Father Jacques Hamel’s missive, published in the St. Etienne Church parish letter, June, 2016:
Spring has been rather cool. If our spirits have been a bit down, patience, summer will eventually arrive. And also the time of vacation.
Vacation, it is a moment for distancing ourselves from our usual occupations. But it is not a mere digression. It is a time of relaxation, but also of rejuvenation, get-togethers, of sharing, of conviviality.
A time of healing: Some will take a few days for a retreat or a pilgrimage. Others will reread the Gospel, alone or with others, like a voice that is alive today. Others will be able to recharge themselves in the great book of creation, in admiring the landscapes so different and so magnificent, which raise us up and speak to us of God.
May we, in these moments, hear God’s invitation to take care of this world, to make of it, there where we live, a warmer world, one more humane and more fraternal.
A time of meeting with family, friends: A moment to take the time to experience something together. A moment to be considerate of others whoever they may be.
A time of sharing: Sharing our friendship, our joy. Sharing our support with children, showing that they matter to us.
Also a time of prayer: Thoughtful about that which is happening in our world at this moment. Let us pray for those who have most need of it, for peace, for a better coexistence with each other.
This is still the year of Divine Mercy. Let us fashion a heart attentive to the beautiful things, to those who are at risk of feeling a little more alone.
May the holidays provide us the opportunity to stock up on the joy of friendship and a renewal of strength. Then we will, better equipped, be able to take up again the road together.
A good vacation to all!
Father Jacques Hamel
Roselyne Hamel said her brother died “in the robes of a priest.” From the grace and spirit of his final message before his martyrdom, written to those he served in name of God and his Catholic faith, one can discern Father Jacques would have had it no other way.