Between November 2015 and July 2016, France was rocked by a series of spectacular terrorist attacks which created havoc and fear from one corner of the country to the other. The most deadly involved the murder of 130 people in Paris by jihadist suicide-bombers and gunmen on the night of November 15, 2015. Eight months later, 86 people died when a jihadist drove a truck down Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais.
For many people inside and outside France, however, the incident they remember most vividly from that terrible time was the killing of an 85 year-old Catholic priest by two jihadists at the end of Mass in L’Église Saint-Étienne in the Norman town of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray on July 26, 2016.
After entering the church armed with knives, Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean subjected Father Jacques Hamel, three nuns and two lay people to an anti-Christian harangue, shouting “Vous, les chrétiens, vous nous supprimez!” [You, the Christians, we will do away with you!]. They then forced Father Hamel to his knees before the altar and cut his throat while yelling “Allahu akbar!”
The emotional shockwave throughout France was so great that even hardened secularists expressed their horror that un prêtre—not, pointedly, un citoyen de la République—had been cut down during Mass. Gone was the calcified nomenclature usually employed by many French politicians whenever speaking about religion. Somehow Père Hamel’s murder had struck at France’s soul.
But who was Jacques Hamel? How did he live his 58 years of priesthood before his life suddenly came to an end in the summer of 2016? Who was the otherwise unknown country curé now described by some as twenty-first century Europe’s first Christian martyr?
Answers to these and other questions are now available in a new biography. Entitled Père Jacques Hamel (2018) most people in France know the author, Armand Isnard, as a producer of documentaries on people ranging from the singer Edith Piaf to the anarchist-musician Léo Ferré. But Isnard has also put together films about distinctly Christian figures. These include Saint Bernadette Soubirous, the mystic Marthe Robin, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, and the philosopher and friend of Paul VI, Jean Guitton.
Isnard’s book about Hamel is no hagiography. It testifies, however, to the type of existence lived by thousands of priests over the centuries: one of obscurity and sacrifice in out-of-the-way places. Hamel’s life was about as far removed as it’s possible to get from that of a celebrity-priest or ecclesial careerist. As Isnard demonstrates, Hamel had emptied himself out in service to those entrusted to his care long before his violent death.
Born in 1930 in the town of Darnétal, Jacques Hamel didn’t come from the rural or middle-class background common to many French priests of his generation. Hamel’s roots were firmly working-class. That translated into considerable economic challenges.
Nor was Hamel’s early family life especially stable. His parents divorced when he was young. This was a time in which divorce carried a powerful social stigma in Catholic and secular France. His younger sister Roselyne recalls how other children were told to avoid contact with them. When Hamel was ordained a priest in 1958, his mother Jeanne hid herself behind a church pillar.
Jeanne Hamel made a living as a weaver. It was barely enough to provide for basic needs. Economic adversity didn’t prevent her, however, from regularly cleaning her local parish church or preparing meals for the nuns who lived opposite their house.
The accepting character of Jeanne’s witness plainly left its mark on Jacques. Over and over again, Isnard documents the simple nature of Hamel’s Catholicism. For Hamel, the Church’s faith was true and he didn’t dwell on theological controversies.
Like other priests of his age, Hamel lived through the upheavals of Vatican II, the aftermath of which was especially difficult for the Church in France. But in the words of the parish priest for whom Hamel was substituting that July morning, Father Auguste Moanda-Phuati, when “the Magisterium decreed something, he was ready to follow.”
The other word that’s repeated constantly throughout this biography is “timid.” Hamel’s working-class background and his parents’ divorce contributed to a diffidence that never left him. It was so debilitating for Hamel as a young man that his seminary superiors feared that he would never finish his formation for the diocesan priesthood.
Physical ailments compounded Hamel’s early struggles. He had wanted to be a missionary—one of the Pères Blancs whose labors brought so many people in France’s former colonial empire to embrace Catholicism. His health struggles, however, ruled that out.
This missionary impulse helps account for Hamel’s particular devotion to Blessed Charles de Foucauld—the aristocratic army officer and explorer who, after a dissipated life, had a profound conversion, became a priest, and lived among the Tuareg people in southern Algeria. Foucauld was shot dead by Muslim bandits in 1916. Later in life, Hamel spoke often of the beheading in 1996, most likely by the Groupe Islamique Armé, of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria who were immortalized by the 2010 film Of Gods and Men.
That he might meet a similar fate didn’t apparently cross Hamel’s mind. Yet he was deeply conscious of the power of evil and people’s capacity to inflict suffering on each other. Like most young Frenchmen in the 1950s, Hamel spent time as an army conscript in French Algeria. There he witnessed the sheer savagery of the Algerian War on more than one occasion. It left a deep impression on Hamel, especially after he narrowly missed being gunned down by Algerian nationalists.
Man’s capacity for evil wasn’t something which preoccupied Hamel. But Hamel firmly believed that Satan is alive and roaming the earth. The night before his death, Hamel told some family members that those who invoked the name of God to engage in terrorism like that witnessed in Paris and Nice were “men without souls, nor faith, nor law.”
Such reflections never turned, however, into personal enmity towards those of other faiths. For all the deep theological differences between Christianity and Islam, Hamel enjoyed good relations with local Muslims. The same goes for non-believers. Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray’s Communist mayor wept in public when announcing Hamel’s murder to the world.
Hamel’s ability to form connections with people with whom he disagreed was emblematic of his whole way of being a priest. Isnard illustrates how Hamel’s sheer ordinariness helped him to enter into his parishioners’ everyday lives in unspectacular rural and provincial settings.
As one of his fellow priests related, Hamel wasn’t at all charismatic. He was clumsy and occasionally cantankerous. He rarely said much at diocesan clergy meetings. Nonetheless, Hamel had “the genius of being fully present, without making waves, [and] he knew how to gauge the temperature of the people who had been entrusted to him.” Even in those tense situations with which every priest is familiar, Hamel was very adaptable, making sure that he listened to what was being said. Many bright and personable clergy struggle their entire lives to acquire those qualities.
Above all, Isnard shows how Hamel was unusually focused on fulfilling the most fundamental tasks of any priest. Every week, Hamel took his time to handwrite not just his Sunday homilies but also homilies for the countless baptisms, marriages, and funerals at which he presided. About 500 of these notes, which Hamel composed with the Scriptures open before him, have been found.
According to Isnard, these homilies reflect a determination to convey the Gospel in clear, simple and fresh ways. To all who would listen, Hamel’s constant refrain was that everyone’s vocation was holiness. “Don’t be afraid,” he often proclaimed, “of sanctity!”
This meticulousness about performing any priest’s most important responsibilities to the best of his ability extended into the rest of Hamel’s life. His family often remarked that nothing could distract him from reading his breviary at the prescribed times each day, no matter how distracting the surroundings.
Such thoroughness meant that Hamel saw himself as perpetually on call. Whether it was hearing the confessions of the dying in hospitals, visiting the elderly and sick, or helping troubled individuals who knocked at the door asking for money, Hamel always responded. He simply didn’t know, another priest told Isnard, “how to say no.”
Even after Hamel stepped down from his position as parish priest at the official retirement age of 75, it wasn’t uncommon for Hamel to preside at several funerals a week, not to mention many baptisms and marriages. When asked why he didn’t slow down, Hamel gave the same reply: “I made a vow of obedience and I will go on to the end.”
The most important part of Hamel’s life—what Isnard calls “the essential element of his day”—was the Mass. Its importance to him was such that the normally-reserved Hamel made it known that he didn’t appreciate any indication that Mass wasn’t being taken seriously. Bad choral music visibly frustrated him. Woe betide those who wandered into church late! Hamel firmly believed that the Eucharist was Christ’s Body and Blood and wouldn’t hide his annoyance whenever the host was treated casually.
The seriousness with which Hamel treated Mass was central to his constant effort to live in God’s presence, day after day, no matter the situation in which he found himself. It was central to what he understood every priest’s calling to be: an alter Christus. As Roselyne Hamel says:
The older he aged, the more he was transformed at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist . . . and the more he aged, the more it was the Passion of Christ that he lived.
On that warm July day, Jacques Hamel was called to live out his own Passion. Isnard relates that Hamel’s affectionate nickname among the clergy of the archdiocese of Rouen was “le mouton” [the sheep]. And the sheep’s last words before he was slaughtered by jihadists were “Va-t en, Satan!”
That’s a standard French rendering of the words in Matthew’s Gospel’s 4:10: “Away from me, Satan!” And you can be sure that Hamel knew by heart the rest of this verse. This records Christ telling the Devil, “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord Your God, and serve Him only’!”
In the last seconds of his life in this world, Father Hamel recalled the words of power spoken by Christ in the face of the Evil One. Perishing as he did, literally in the shadow of a cross and before the altar, le mouton shed his blood in imitatione Christi.
The shy, often awkward man whose killing shook France died in a way familiar to those missionaries whose ranks Hamel had wanted to join as a young man. But he also perished in a manner which paralleled Christ’s death as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins.
That’s all the more reason to affirm Isnard’s conclusions: that Hamel’s death was that of a martyr and that we can confidently believe that le mouton is now a saint—a saint for the ordinary, the unglamorous, the unseen, and the truly humble who pass unknown among us every single day but whose holiness illuminates the world.
Père Hamel, martyr de la foi, priez pour nous!