Several weeks back, upon the news of Fr. Jacques Hamel’s assassination in France at the hands of Muslim terrorists, I put up a post questioning whether it was really wise to jump to the conclusion that he was a martyr (as many were doing, and I certainly sympathized with it). The Church has clear guidelines for determining martyrdom, and at that point, we simply did not have the answers to all the questions.
Since then, we have gained some details about Fr. Hamel’s last words (Begone, Satan!) and some of the other circumstances that surrounded his death. And these have reaffirmed the idea that he may well have been a martyr. I still think that it would be irresponsible for us, in our private judgment, to reach that conclusion – especially on the basis of media reports. The Church has a process, and we need to respect that.
Adding a dose of confusion to the mix, Pope Francis offered a Mass in suffrage of Fr. Hamel’s soul – that is, at least, how the Vatican web site people entitled the Holy Father’s reflection for that day. Now, when you offer Mass for someone, it’s because you are not sure that they are in heaven yet and want to try to help them along. But at that Mass, the Pope preached in such a way as to give the impression that Père Hamel was certainly a martyr and certainly already in heaven; he said, “May [Fr. Hamel], from Heaven — we ought to pray to him, because he is a martyr! Martyrs are blessed, and we should pray to him — give us the meekness, brotherhood, peace, and also the courage to speak the truth.” I guess the Mass was not offered for him, then – maybe the Holy Father had another intention, perhaps in thanksgiving for Fr. Hamel’s martyrdom. Only God knows for sure.
Following that Mass and those words, many surmised that the Holy Father’s intention was simply to dispense with usual procedures (as he is wont to do) and declared Fr. Hamel a Blessed on the spot. Now, keep in mind, Popes do not effect juridical acts, such as promulgating a solemn teaching or declaring someone a Blessed or Saint, in the context of a daily Mass homily. Therefore, ever since that declaration this situation has been crying out, as it were, for further clarification. (There are also the reports, repeated in the article linked below, that the Holy Father had encourage that Fr. Hamel’s photo be displayed for devotion in churches.)
Well now – I suppose, to help resolve some of the confusion (maybe?) – we have a report today that walks things back a bit. The Archbishop of Rouen is saying that the Holy Father has waived the usual five year waiting period to start a cause for beatification and canonization. The logical conclusion would be: Fr. Hamel is not yet a “Blessed”, but the Pope’s personal opinion is that he is and wants him to be, and has streamlined that official process by waiving the usual waiting period. But again, the article repeats the fact that Pope Francis encouraged the display of Fr. Hamel’s photo for devotion. (Incidentally, in other circumstances, this could jeopardize a cause for canonization because it could be seen as “rigging it” by artificially fomenting a cult of devotion, rather than verifying one organically.)
When I was recently in Rome, I saw Fr. Hamel’s photo displayed in the French church there (San Luigi dei Francesi), and I’m sure it is displayed in many parishes in France. So some places are already honoring him as a Blessed, on the basis of the Holy Father’s declarations, even while the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints works with the Archdiocese of Rouen to formalize all of that. It’s all rather messy, but that’s where things stand. All holy martyrs, pray for us!