Just a few weeks ago, on a drive down France, I went to visit the church where Fr Jacques Hamel was brutally killed. The town, or suburb, of Sainte Etienne-du-Rouvray, is a small, quiet place beside the railway tracks, south of Rouen. The church was still closed, surrounded by barricades. There was a small, moving and tired-looking array of flowers, cards, mementos and tributes.
We are told that Fr Hamel died with these words on his lips: 'Go away Satan.' It is not clear what he meant. Journalists said it was directed at those who came at his throat with their knives. Or did those words point to a deeper struggle? I have pondered on these words as the utterance of a man of peace and a priest. His 'Satan' could have been the fear gripping his heart, or a despair that all was about to be lost. His 'Satan' may well have been anything that could have made him lose trust in Jesus at this hour of his death, the radical temptations urging him to abandon the very foundation on which he had built his whole life. He was, evidently, a man of peace, refusing a commission in the French Foreign Legion during his years of service because it would have meant giving orders to kill. He had built a life of daily peacefulness and his struggle may well have been in maintaining that stance, his radical decision of heart, of spirit, until the last moment of consciousness. The witness of his daily life as a priest, I suggest, is summed up in the manner of his death: on his knees, before the altar, the very position he had taken when he was ordained.
Our struggles are different but we too have to fight, each day, to keep fresh the original call and inspiration which brought us to our knees at the moment of our ordination. We too want to bring that dedication to the moment of our death.
There is so much more we can draw from our history, from many other shining examples of priesthood who emerge in the darkness of cruelty and human sinfulness. They are our brothers and they enrich us in our own striving and service.
So what is it that binds us together, across the centuries and the great diversity of experience? For me, the most appropriate word, the only word, that takes us to the heart of priesthood is that it is a gift. Priesthood is a gift given by the Lord to us in our daily unworthiness, entrusted to these vessels of clay, unfolding in responsibility, in opportunity, in a flow of trust, respect, affection that we do not deserve but which is given solely in the light of the office, the gift, we have received. Sometimes we have mistakenly thought that this gift bestows a personal superiority over others, or that it is a source of personal privilege setting us above others. How wrong that is, yet how beguiling: that we mistake for personal honour, the respect and esteem that belongs solely to the gift of being a priest of Jesus Christ.
We know only too well, as have all our brothers of ages past, that we are men who face every temptation, who know every weakness that characterises our humanity and our age: the difficulty of sustaining faithfulness in the commitments we have given; the difficulty of handling all relationships with integrity and openness; the challenges of social media and their addictive power; the dangers of misinterpreting anger or praise or indifference. The list is as complex as our common humanity. Yet the Lord has chosen us. Day by day we can rejoice in that choice, in the utterly astonishing fact that we are bound to Him for ever and that He chooses to use our hands, our words, our hearts to accomplish the most sublime work of His grace. The gift unfolds in so many ways, but especially, I suggest, in the way so beautifully expressed by Tony Philpot, in our witnessing and sharing in 'the great and miraculous joy' in the lives of so many ordinary people. That indeed is the stuff of our daily living!
The above article is an extract from a talk given by Cardinal Vincent Nichols for a day conference for the priests of the Archdiocese of Birmingham on 13 September 2016.