The slaughter of the Catholic priest Father Jacques Hamel (aged 84) yesterday reminds me of the martyrdom of one of the great fathers of the Church, Polycarp of Smyrna in the year 154, who was martyred at the age of 86. Yes, what caused me to compare the two events was the similar ages of the two martyrs. Likewise, his French nationality reminds me of the martyrdom of a friend of mine, Father Christian Chessel, an engineer in his thirties who was sent to Algeria by the White Fathers to work at a social center and was killed by one of the extremist Islamist groups along with three companions in 1994.
There is an account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp written by an eyewitness from among the believers in Smyrna in which the writer of the account compares Polycarp’s martyrdom to Christ’s passion and crucifixion, saying “It was Friday and the hour for the supper had drawn near… He could have fled… but he did not want to. Rather, he said, ‘may God’s will be done.'” Father Jacques Hamel was at the Lord’s Supper (the Mass), his last supper and no doubt the last thing he said before being slaughtered was “may the Lord’s will be done.” But is it true that it is the Lord’s will that the servant of His temple be slaughtered? The Lord’s will is that man may live, not that he die. Death is alien to human nature and everything that is alien is not of God. It is not necessary, then, that the Lord’s will be achieved in human time.
After seizing Polycarp and leading him to the place where he would be executed, one of his persecutors asked him to renounce his faith and curse Christ. He responded with a deep sigh, gesturing to the crowds and looking to heaven, “I have spent eighty-six years in the service of Christ and He has never hurt me. So how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Jacque Hamel, who spent eighty-four years in the service of Christ, after the model of Polycarp, would not renounce Christ after those long years. He would not hand Him over to be crucified, but rather went to be crucified with Him.
What was the reaction of the crowds? The roar of he crowds went up demanding that he be killed: “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods!” Here also comes to mind the martyrdom of Saint Joseph of Damascus, Father Yusuf Muhanna al-Haddad, a victim of the sectarian massacres that occurred in Damascus on July 10, 1860. His biography, which was edited by Archimandrite Touma Bitar in his book Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage, says that one of his killers cried out upon seeing him, “This is the imam of the Christians. If we kill him, we kill with him all the Christians!”
The killers of Saint Polycarp, the killers of Father Joseph of Damascus, the killers of (aged 76) who chose Homs as his home and was martyred there in 2014, and the killers of Father Jacques Hamel do not know that they cannot put an end to the Christians if they kill their imam. The Jews thought that by crucifying Christ they would save their people and put an end to His message. Their leader said, “It is better for one to die for the sake of the people,” and he was disappointed. Christ’s crucifixion did not prevent Christianity from spreading to every part of the inhabited world.
These are the true Christians, those who stay firm in their faith until the end, who offer themselves as a ransom for their loved ones– that is, for the entire world. These are the true Christians, who do not betray their mission and their principles under any pretext and so resemble Christ, their only Teacher, bearing their cross and following Him, walking in His footsteps on the path to Golgotha. They are buried with Him and shall rise with Him. The time of the true martyrs– the martyrs of peace, love, hope and faith– has not ended and will not end until the entire world repents before the face of the Almighty.