The blood of the martyrs: Why the death of Fr Jaques Hamel mustn't be wasted

A white rose is attached to a post in front of the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where Father Jacques Hamel, was killed.Reuters

ISIS, through its gullible inadequates searching for significance in religious nihilism, struck again yesterday in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Fr Jaques Hamel is dead and a second victim is fighting for life.

The attack is the latest in a growing list of atrocities on European soil. It's understandable that Paris, Nice and Ansbach get more attention in Western media than attacks in Kabul or Baghdad, though these claim far more lives. Inevitably, what's closer to us seems more urgent; it doesn't make us bad people that we seem to care more. But all these deaths are the same. They spring from the same perverted ideology, they leave grief and trauma behind them and we run out of things to say.

But not in this case. The death of Fr Hamel is different because of who he was and when and where he died. He was a priest slain at his own altar as he was saying mass. In Iraq and Syria priests are regularly targeted. This is the first time a Christian minister has been killed by Islamic State in a church in Europe. It was a deliberate attack on what they see as the rival religion that stands behind all the assaults on Muslim nations by the West. And because of that, it has been extraordinarily shocking.

Images of Fr Hamel have been everywhere on the internet. Millions have seen pictures of crosses and crucifixes, images of Mary and grieving Christs. Bible texts about "greater love" and "blessed are the peacemakers" have been shared by people with very little religious faith. The frail, white-haired old priest who died for his faith has probably touched more lives in his death than he ever did in his life. There are already calls for Fr Hamel to be officially declared a martyr, which would allow him to be made a saint without the usual long-drawn-out process the Church requires.

And while this is genuinely moving, and in some ways quite lovely, it has to make us think very hard about what we are doing with this death. Because it is so loaded with symbolism in a way that random terrorist deaths by knife, bomb or bullet are not, we face an enormous responsibility to use it well.

In a perceptive comment yesterday, the Dean of Worcester said: "What an end for someone who had been a priest for nearly sixty years: and yet where else would a priest choose to die but at the altar of God?" In a sense, martyrdom is just what Christians do. Out of the deaths of saints springs new life. Tertullian, the early Church father, famously said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.

But how that seed grows depends on how it is fed and watered by Christians.

So Fr Hamel's martyrdom must not become a rallying-point for those seeking revenge. Calls on social media for 'Christian jihadis' to carry the fight to the 'enemy' have to be resisted.

It must not be used to divide people into opposing Christian and Muslim camps. France is not, in fact, a particularly religious country, and there is a strong anti-clerical feeling among many of the intelligentsia in particular. But it's their own French clerics and French Catholicism they oppose, and their first instinct is solidarity with their old enemy against their new one. And in the wider world, the death of Fr Hamel could be used to whip up hatred and set one faith against another.

In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. In tune with the opinion of the time that disability was the result of sin, his disciples ask him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (verse 2). In other words, they are looking for a reason for what happened to him. In his answer, Jesus implies the reason lies in the hands of human beings as they seek to cooperate with the purposes of God: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (verse 3).

So the question becomes, how can the work of God be displayed in the life and death of Jacques Hamel? And nothing that smacks of anger, hatred or revenge can be part of the answer. Instead, this terrible sin should be used to turn people to the loving and forgiving Christ, who was also unjustly sacrificed.

Pope Francis said through his secretary of state that he was "particularly upset that this act of violence took place in a church during Mass, the liturgical act that implores God's peace for the world". And yes, it is deeply upsetting. But at communion we recall another act of violence, the crucifixion of Christ, his broken body and shed blood. This violence is transformed into a symbol of reconciliation through love and forgiveness. So must the violence that took Fr Hamel be.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods