I’m sorry it has been a while since my last blog post. I have been enjoying some much needed family holiday time in beautiful Normandy. And it is beautiful, although I didn’t realize until we came here that it has the same reputation for weather among the French as Wales does for the English. True to form, after a boiling hot day when we arrived, it has rained on and off much of the rest of the time!
The weather hasn’t stopped us though from seeing some wonderful places and meeting some wonderful people, not least our superb French hosts who have entertained us and advised us and helped us no end along the way. They have also been a great encouragement for me, dusting off my rusty French verbs, and for Erica, my eldest, as she prepares for her French GCSE next year.
It was our hosts who pointed out that today, 26th July 2017, was the anniversary of the murder of Father Jacques Hamel, the 85 year old priest murdered while taking mass in a church very near Rouen. So this afternoon we went to pay our respects and visit the church with its freshly inaugurated memorial listing the articles from the universal declaration of human rights. In the morning I turned on the TV to watch the mass in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, taken by the Archbishop of Rouen and in the presence of the French President and many other dignitaries. The mass was timed to coincide with the one Pere Hamel was taking a year ago and was very moving.
I think I would have found it more moving however, had it not been for the endless French commentary describing the various parts of the Mass as if it were a David Attenborough documentary explaining the mating rituals of exotic birds to the uninitiated. As a secular country committed to the principle of ‘laicité’, the death of Pere Hamel seems to have forced France to wake up to the religious beliefs held by many of its people. It was fascinating to hear the various commentators discussing the significance for France of President Macron’s participation in the Catholic Mass.
In the service, the commentary and the speeches afterwards many interesting things were said, such as the need for more ‘fraternité’ and the failure of the attackers to achieve the division they sought (the painting of Pere Hamel in the church is a beautiful gift from a member of the local muslim community to whom Pere Hamel was a good friend). But what particularly struck me was the comment that for 85 years Jacques Hamel was relatively unknown. He was in many respects a very ordinary priest faithfully seeking to live out his calling. In fact, it turned out that he was, as Mgr Lebrun put it, ‘a priest among priests’, and was much loved in church circles and in the communities he served.
But the Archbishop, along with others, has begun a call for Pere Hamel to be made a saint quickly. There is even a campaign, ‘santo subito’ (Italian for ‘saint straightaway’), calling for him to be fast-tracked to sainthood by the Pope. Now, I come from a tradition where we are all ‘saints’ so I struggle with some of the celebrity status of official saints, but in Pere Hamel it seems there is a good case. It could be said that Pere Hamel was made special by the way he died, but it could also be said that what made him special, albeit less noticed, was the way he lived.
All this pondering brings me back to my brother, someone who was very special in the way he lived and the courage that he showed in the face of his mortality, but went unnoticed by most of the world. I’d like to think that he and Pere Hamel might be basking now in the amazing presence of Love itself, a Love that washes away the pain and distress of this life, a Love that values and sees as precious each one of the billions who populate our planet whatever their beliefs, and a Love that has the power to heal and reconcile even our divided and tormented world.
Mgr Lebrun seized the opportunity to speak boldly and passionately about the love of God in Jesus and about Jesus as the one who taught us to call God ‘Father’ or ‘Pere’. By doing so, he also drew attention to our ‘fraternité’. When we look into the face of another human being, we are looking at the face of our sister or brother. Inspired by Pere Hamel and by Andy, I want to commit myself afresh to being a brother to every other human being I meet, especially to those who are most different from me. How I begin to make that commitment a reality I don’t quite know yet. Maybe I’ll blog another time to let you know how I get on …