Neil McNicholas: Murder at Mass the greatest sacrilege as France suffers new terror outrage

French soldiers stand guard near the scene of an attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, in which a priest, aged 84, was killed.
French soldiers stand guard near the scene of an attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, in which a priest, aged 84, was killed.
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IT seems just as the moment that every time you switch on the news there’s been yet another outrage – terrorist-related or otherwise – involving the taking of innocent lives through extreme acts of violence.

The latest, though sadly there could be yet others by the time this article is published, has involved the senseless killing of an 84-year-old Catholic priest, Fr Jacques Hamel, in Normandy as he stood at the altar celebrating Mass.

How this could happen and why it happened are questions that will only be answered in the days ahead, but it was obviously out-of- the-ordinary by any definition.

However, priests are soft targets. When I was teaching as a lay-missionary in Zambia, an elderly Polish priest – in his 90s if memory serves – was stabbed to death as he opened his door to a caller. He had spent almost his entire priesthood serving in township parishes in Zambia and was greatly loved and respected by all who knew him. Tragically there was at least one person who didn’t share that love and respect.

Here in my own diocese we have had priests attacked by callers at the door including at least one knife attack which, thankfully, didn’t prove fatal.

The diocese issued a strong recommendation that we shouldn’t open our doors to strangers – which, of course, flies in the face of how we should respond to callers, but in this day and age with so many people with mental health and drug problems being cared for in the community, we now have to be both suspicious and cautious when we answer our doors, and not actually open them unless they are on a security chain.

Still, I know of priests who just won’t do that because it’s not what we do, and yet we really have to because that’s how things are these days. And the fact that I am here writing this article is testimony to the need for caution.

Some years ago two people were stabbed to death and in the time between them the murderer called at my front door. Thankfully I checked the CCTV camera first and so didn’t automatically open the door in response to the bell. I recognised him from his photo in the papers and it was later confirmed that the caller was indeed him. Had I opened the door, who knows what might have happened?

Priests are soft targets because they open their doors. Our late auxiliary bishop who had his parish in Hull used to provide cups of tea and sandwiches to those supposedly in need. On a number of occasions he had things stolen from his house by the very people to whom he offered help – all a bit “Les Mis” for those who know the story.

But to return to the tragic murder of Fr Hamel – not that what I am about to say will mean anything whatsoever to the sort of people who might carry out such an act.

There can be only one act of sacrilege greater than killing a priest, and that is killing him whilst he is standing at the altar celebrating Mass. It has been the story of any number of priests throughout history who were martyred for the faith. We need think no further afield than Thomas Becket, who was savagely attacked in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 at the behest of Henry II.

As a priest you think you are safe, that people will respect the office and not cause you physical harm. At one time we might have said the same about police officers, but not now. There is no fear of the consequences of assaulting a police officer and that is reflected in the amount of body armour and weapons of defence that they now have to wear – most, however, still bravely opting not to be armed.

Priests are in a similar position. We presume that people will have more respect than to attack a priest – why, for goodness’ sake, would they have any reason to do so? But respect is thin on the ground these days and so, for that matter, is what would once have been an appreciation of who a priest is and what he represents – indeed who he represents as a man of God.

What was the purpose, what was the intention, of taking the life of a vulnerable 84-year- old priest as he stood at the altar of his parish church? That’s where we do what we do and out on the streets also. We may have to learn to be more cautious, but we can never be totally free from risk. The cross itself is a reminder of the risk Our Lord took in his ministry and the ultimate price he paid for doing nothing more than loving and caring for others.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.