BEATIFICATION OF ARCHBISHOP ROMERO, MAY 23, 2015
An analysis in the New York Times about the barbaric murder of Father Jacques Hamel noted that some leading Catholics immediately compared Father Hamel to Blessed Oscar Romero, who was also killed at the altar. The Rev. James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) said in a tweet that “A martyr looks like this. Fr Jacques Hamel, killed while celebrating Mass, like Thomas of Becket and Oscar Romero.” The comparison has been repeated by Cardinal Sean O'Malley; by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako; and also by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.
In fact, Fr. Hamel has joined a small and select group of martyrs who have died in church. In addition to the Blessed Romero and St. Thomas Becket, we can list St. Stanislaus, Bishop of Krakow. But within this core group, only P. Hamel and Archbishop Romero have been killed while celebrating Mass. In his words about the murder, Pope Francis referred to Fr. Hamel as “This holy priest, who died at precisely at the moment in which he offered the prayer for the whole Church”.
The Pope’s emphasis recalls the words of Saint John Paul II days after the assassination of Archbishop Romero. “The news arrived yesterday that this prelate had been barbarously murdered while celebrating Mass: he was killed precisely in the most sacred moment and during the most supreme and divine act ... a bishop of the Church of God has been assassinated while serving his sanctifying mission by offering the Eucharist. He is a brother in the episcopate who was killed and therefore it is not only his archdiocese, but the whole Church which suffers from such iniquitous violence which is part of all other forms of terrorism and revenge that degrade the dignity of man in the world today—Because every man's life is sacred! —violates goodness, justice and right and, what is more, offends the Gospel and its message of love, solidarity and brotherhood in Christ.” (General Audience, March 26, 1980)
In this statement, John Paul captures the full meaning of martyrdom at the altar, a death that comes during the celebration of Mass. But there are, unfortunately, other similarities that link the death of Fr. Hamel with that of Archbishop Romero, and it was Chaldean Patriarch Sako who denounced one of them—the instant manipulation of the martyrdom of Fr. Hamel. “Reducing everything to appeals and initiatives to foment indignation is sacrilegious blasphemy in my view, towards the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques and that of all others,” said the Patriarch in an interview.
Some have tried to use the death of Fr. Hamel to heighten the conflict and seek revenge against the Muslim world. A note published in Il Tempo has been translated and published by conservative outlets, lashes out against “false mercy” and warns of the need for armed resistance against Islam. The editorial has harsh words for the Holy Father, “Pope Bergoglio’s silence is parallel to that of Muslims from all over the globe who don’t denounce forcefully and in an unanimous, collective manner, the crimes committed in Allah’s name by their co-religionists”.
The intent to juxtapose the martyr against a pope to promote the theological differences they have with the Pope recalls the misrepresentations made to attempt to place Blessed Romero in conflict with John Paul II by folks seeking to make the Polish pontiff look bad. In that sense, the figure and the martyrdom of Romero was manipulated by insinuations that John Paul had abandoned him, did not like him, that he was close to his executioners, etc. It is the same as what people from the other side of the aisle are doing with this “holy priest”.
In the final analysis, Fr. Hamel and Archbishop Romero are joined in martyrdom, and the case of Fr. Hamel helps us understand the meaning of martyrdom in the modern world. Many refused to acknowledge it in the Romero case because his killers were Catholics. One can imagine that a cynic could argue that Fr. Hamel is not a martyr, perhaps taking advantage of the Pope's statement that his death was not the result of “a war of religions” (to wrongly conclude it was not “in hatred of the faith”). It can be argued that the Islamic State attacked an atheistic satirical magazine in France on one occasion, a gay bar in Florida the next time, and have created many more Muslim victims than Christian ones.
However, the symbolism of a death at the altar speaks very eloquently to discredit such arguments. As Father James Martin puts it: “A martyr looks like this”.