True Martyrdom: Père Jacques Hamel

When we received news of yesterday’s atrocity at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, we prayed for the perpetrators, that they might be forgiven, for the wounded that they might recover, but for Fr Jacques, who was murdered at the altar, there was only the Te Deum. Why? Fr Jacques joins the long line of those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood. He did not choose to die, he was murdered; and he was murdered simply and solely because he was a Christian. He is thus a true martyr, and it has long been the custom of the Church, when hearing of martyrdom, to praise God by singing the Te Deum. But what of all those others who have been killed, in Nice, in Ansbach, in so many places, are they martyrs? Not as the Church understands martyrdom, perhaps, but that does not mean that their deaths are any less important, nor that their murder is any less heinous. We reserve the terms ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’ for very specific conditions, but all taking of innocent human life is wrong and cries to heaven for vengeance. When the language of martyrdom is appropriated by the murderers themselvs, as in the case of IS, the language may be — indeed is — defiled, but the reality of martyrdom itself is untarnished.

Today we ask the prayers of Fr Jacques for all who have died, all who grieve, all who live in fear; for surely his prayers must be very powerful with God, whom he served throughout his long life and for faith in whom he died.




It is sad that many people now principally hear the word ‘martyr’ in the context of what, for want of a better term, I can only call Islamic extremism. There is a world of difference between the suicide bomber who inflicts death on others in the name of religion and the Christian martyr who suffers death rather than betray the One in whom he/she believes. Seeking martyrdom is, according to the Christian understanding, wrong; but if today you should want to be a martyr, you do not have to travel very far. Go to North Africa and the Middle East, to the lands of the first martyrs, and there you will find opportunity in plenty. The Christians of Mosul and Qaraqosh know all there is to know about the cost of witnessing to Christ.

St Maximilain Kolbe, whose feast we keep today, knew about that cost, too. He stood up to a brutal regime and paid the price for his Christian beliefs. In an earlier post, Standing Up and Being Counted, I reflected on the nature of his martyrdom and my own initial difficulty in seeing him as a martyr in the classical sense. In another, Feeling a Failure, I wondered aloud about the thoughts and feelings he experienced in that dark bunker as his life ebbed away. Today, however, I think I would simply ask his prayers, and the prayers of all the saints, for our persecuted brothers and sisters. The martyrs of our own day are no less glorious in their fidelity than those of the past.


From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison

Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was,  to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.

A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’

Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.