On Tuesday morning many of us awoke to news of the brutal murder of Father Jacques Hamel in an attack on his church near Rouen, at some point during the celebration of Holy Mass. Just after reading those first reports, I was myself vesting for the morning Mass, very conscious of the similarities between his situation that morning and my own: Père Hamel no doubt began his day with no expectation of the horror that would befall him. Of course, our first response to this atrocity must be to ask the Lord to look with mercy on his servant and to grant him “the abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace,” for which we pray in the Canon of the Mass. But even as we do so, we can already benefit from the witness of Père Hamel’s life and, indeed, his death. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras has said, “Martyrdom is the supreme canon of the Church’s life . . . The martyrs of the Church embody the truth of the Church, the truth of the true life which is communion and relationship with God.” Thus, even though his death has not been declared as martyrdom, nevertheless his example—like so many others—is worthy of our contemplation.
The parable of the rich fool in this morning’s gospel is perhaps a guide in this respect. The rich man who has treasured his possessions, through greed and covetousness, at the moment of his judgment is found wanting. His obsession with material wealth, which we might equally understand as temporal concerns, is ultimately useless for, as the Lord himself tells us, he was “not rich toward God” (Lk. 12: 21). This in turn puts us in mind of Christ’s admonition in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6: 19). And elsewhere: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24: 42).
Of course each of us prays for the grace of a good death; for the time to set our affairs in order and to be reconciled with God and neighbour. Is this not our overarching prayer at Compline each night? Yet, as Père Hamel’s untimely death demonstrates, it is well that we are constantly examining our consciences, and constantly striving to live the life to which we are called by our baptism—the life of the kingdom of heaven—not simply as a preparation for the life of the world to come, but as a reality in the present; the here and now.
The urgency of this should not shock us, not least in the context of the Mass. In every offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice we peal back the curtain and attend to the worship of heaven. Each time we come to the altar we are engaged in an action which is at once temporal and eternal. We do not simply come to a Mass, but the Mass—entering into the one eternal sacrifice of God the Son to God the Father, in and through God the Holy Spirit. Thus it is also here that our priorities are reassessed, and that the things of this world are subjugated by the things of the world to come. If we seek to ensure that our “barns” are filled with true treasure, we can do no better than renewing our devotion to Christ in the Mass; renewing our desire to be filled with God’s grace; conformed to his life.
We pray that we may never face the unspeakable end which Père Hamel faced on Tuesday morning, and which our brothers and sisters in the Middle East face every day, but we also pray that however our life is to end we are not like that so-called rich fool, but are prepared; rich in the things that endure. In a letter to his parishioners, Père Hamel wrote these words about Saint Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Liseux; words which perhaps now take on a new meaning: “Their whole existence was oriented towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Their only desire was to serve God first.” May this be said not only of Père Hamel but also of us, that when we are each called to account for our life we may not hear that rebuke given to the rich fool, but rather “Well done, good and faithful servant; … enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25: 23).