A Sanctuary no longer Inviolable

HamelCardinal Raymond Burke’s recent comments that Islam ‘wants to govern the world’ and that to avoid that fate America needs to re-assert ‘the Christian origin of our own nation’ will be interpreted as dangerously provocative in the light of the gruesome death of 84-year-old Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy yesterday.
Placing the Christian faith and tradition in direct competition with Islam is not just sending all the wrong messages, it’s fuelling a version of Islam at odds with the fundamentals of that faith and creating a ‘Them and Us’ divide that places at risk, as is clear from the incident in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, public representatives of Christian Churches, like Fr Hamel.
In recent years priests in Ireland have grown used to a range of situations where confrontation and sometimes verbal abuse is directly experienced and where the threat of physical violence is obvious. But while the events in Normandy are of a different order entirely, they will add to the fearfulness already present in the lives of many priests.
The strong culture of Catholicism in Ireland has, heretofore, acted as a protection for priests, in that the person of the priest was regarded traditionally as inviolable. A further protection was an acceptance of the sacred space a church building represented and an even further protection surrounded the celebration of the Eucharist. The Normandy events represent the rejection of those three strands and will send a chill wind through many a presbytery.
The notion of church sanctuary is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, from the 6th century onwards, respected even in civil law and regarded as an inviolable place of safety. Religious houses in Europe were traditionally safe places for refugees, even affording protection from arrest for the innocent and the guilty. But in our present world clearly notions of sacred space, much less sanctuary, are no longer respected.
A growing level of fearfulness is now a reality for Irish priests. Most of us are elderly – the average age is moving up towards 70 – we usually live alone often in isolated presbyteries and the perception is that the weekend’s collection is on site. Added to that is the conviction among priests (due to the fall-out from the child sexual abuse scandals and the belief that we’re easy targets for almost everything) that priests are taken for granted – by everyone. It compounds our growing vulnerability.
At a pastoral level, security runs counter to availability. A knock on the door late at night may well be a hostile hand but it may also be someone in dire need who believes that there should always be room at the inn, regardless. Absolute security of presbyteries and churches is not just impossible but unworthy of what we represent.
Father Jacques Hamel, a target of bitterness and extremism, died a violent death on the sanctuary of his church, as he broke the Bread of Life for his people.
Blessed, broken and given.

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  1. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Something so sad and evil about this elderly priest being put to death on his own altar in front of a handful of worshippers. This is a great evil which is sweeping France and its not easy to prepare for it- as we have seen it does not always involve guns and/or explosives, a lorry can be used, or as in 9/11 just knives to do evil work.Also some of the perpetrators can be of North African origin who were actually born and reared in France.
    I recall being in the Joan of Arc Cathedral about 1990- long before we saw any terrorist acts. Inside were some tourists but among them was a young man obviously of Islamic background, he was chanting prayers and to me seemed somewhat deranged and angry. Nobody did anything to remove him. The thought struck at the time, if a Christian did the same in a mosque what would be the outcome ?
    So sad that Fr Hamel should die in this way. Many elderly priests in France try to keep going against all the odds and they are few on the ground serving perhaps a few churches,often lovely but somewhat neglected. Maybe this might be a wake up call to us all ?

  2. Kathleen Faley says:

    I agree with you Brendan @1 when you say that “Something so sad and evil this elderly priest being put to death on his own altar in front a handful of worshippers.” What has to be noted here by Catholics not just in France but throughout the world is that Fr. Hamel being murdered in such a barbaric act of violence should be regarded as having being martyred for his Christian Faith as he was Celebrating the Holy Eucharist at that time. Fr. Hamel’s death need not be in vain for this reason. Fr. Hamel has now become a source of inspiration for men to enter priesthood and Be Not Afraid to do so even if it means-especially if it means-paying the price of being martyred for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the poor in spirit -each and every one of us whether of French nationality or any other Nationality that populates this world today and will populate it in the future.

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