It’s somewhat unusual to see many senior French officials together in church. But three French presidents attended the mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week in honor of martyred priest Jacques Hamel, slain in his Normandy church by pro-ISIS youths.
Current President Hollande sat in the front row with his predecessors Giscard and Sarkozy. The fourth living president Chirac was not present. Of the three, only 90 year old Giscard went forward for the Eucharist. At the conclusion, Hollande joined Archbishop of Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, a critic of the Socialist president’s policy on same sex marriage and euthanasia among other issues, in his procession out the church, to applause from the congregation.
This show of national unity was touching and illustrated how the church can exemplify a wide fraternity in times of grief and crisis.
France is famously secular in its political life. Although most of the French still identify as Catholic, regular church attendance is low. Islamist groups like ISIS don’t typically recognize this distinction and often denounce even mostly secular Western states like France as Christian “crusader” nations. And in truth, even the secular West remains a child of Christendom, if an often ungrateful one.
In his sermon, the Cardinal had many notable statements about the martyrdom of Father Hamel and its import for the nation, church, and world.
He spoke of the ISIS murderers:
Those who drape themselves in the finery of religion to hide their deadly project, those who tell us of a God of death, a Moloch (false god) who rejoices in the death of man and promises heaven to those that kill by invoking him. They cannot hope that man gives in to their illusion.
He spoke of the hope of the Gospel:
It’s this hope, at the heart of the test, which forever bars the path of despair, of vengeance, and of death. It’s this hope that animated the ministry of Father Jacques Hamel when he celebrated the eucharist during which he was savagely executed. It’s this hope which supports the Christians from the Orient when they must flee before persecution, and they choose to leave everything rather than renounce their faith. It’s this hope that lives in the heart of hundreds of thousands of young people gathered around Pope Francis in Krakow. It’s this same hope which permits us do not succumb to hate when we are taken by torment.
He spoke of the emptiness of Western “values:”
The crisis that has gripped our society, urges us inexorably to reconsider our views, which are our most valuable possessions. Often the ‘values’ are invoked as a kind of talisman for which we should stand up, no matter what it costs. But we are less verbose when it comes to the content, and that’s the problem. […] For what values we are ready to sell everything that we possess in order to acquire and protect them? Maybe our aggressors have finally compelled us to identify the object of our resistance?
He spoke of the sterility of materialism:
We have never had such prosperity, such a comfortable life and known such security in France as it is today. So many produced and – albeit unequally – distributed goods but it doesn’t prevent that we are afraid. Is that fear stirred therefore that we could lose so much of it?
He spoke of morality’s decline:
The silence of the parents towards their children and the failure of the transmission of values. The silence of the elites against the decline of morals and legalizing of aberrations. Silence at work, at home silence, silence in the city. For what purpose should we talk? The many fears create blocks, a collective fear and anxiety. The anxiety urges us to hide and hide. Where will we find the strength to face these dangers? For those of us who believe in Jesus Christ, hope lies in trusting in His Word.
He spoke of questioning God:
In this terrible time we’re going through, how can we make our own this cry to God of the prophet Jeremiah, in the midst of attacks of which he was the object? How can we not turn against God and not demand an account from him?
He said that to cry out to God is not to lack faith:
It is, on the contrary, to continue to speak to Him and to call upon Him in the precise moment when events seem to call into question His power and His love. It is to continue to affirm our faith in Him, our trust in the Face of love and mercy He has shown in His Son Jesus Christ.
He spoke of life:
The hope written by God on the heart of man has a name: it is called life. Hope has a face, the face of Christ giving his life in sacrifice so that men may have life in abundance. Hope has a project, the project of gathering humanity into one people, not by extermination but by conviction and by the call to freedom. It is this hope in the midst of trial that forever blocks for us the path to despair, vengeance, and death.
He said murder could assault but not defeat Father Hamel’s faith:
It is this conviction that was savagely wounded at Saint-Étienne du Rouvray, and it is thanks to this conviction that we can resist the temptation to nihilism and a taste for death. It is thanks to this conviction that we refuse to become delirious with conspiracy theories and allow our society become gangrenous with the virus of suspicion.
And he spoke of perseverance:
For we who believe in the God of Jesus Christ, this hope is trusting in the word of God as the prophet Jeremiah received it and relayed it: “Though they fight against you, they shall not prevail, for I am with you, to save and rescue you. I will rescue you from the hand of the wicked, and ransom you from the power of the violent.” My rampart is the love of God.