I’m not one of those Christians who go in for high days and holy days. Truth be told, I find Yuletide duties on the 25th of December a little popish, not to mention chronologically inaccurate. And even if I were to observe the feast days of, say, the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), St Bartholomew certainly wouldn’t be on my liturgical radar.
But I do know that last Wednesday was St Bartholomew’s Day. In fact, it’s been a red letter day for me ever since I studied the Reformation as an undergraduate. I was and remain captivated by what happened that day in 1572, as a wave of Catholic violence against the Huguenots (French protestant Calvinists) swept through Paris and twelve other French cities, including Rouen, killing around twenty thousand of them.
The so-called St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (which actually lasted some weeks) was a turning point in the French Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Although greatly reducing the Protestant numbers, it united and energised – perhaps in modern parlance we would say it radicalised – them throughout Europe and, as renowned church historian Henry Chadwick writes, ‘printed on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion.’
Considering the injunctions of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, to love one another, to turn the other cheek, to love thy neighbour, etc, it must be said that the church’s history is well-blemished. But there but for the grace of God go I. In fact, sectarian slaughter is where we all end up but for grace. And in the grace of God too, we also find martyrdom, the present variety of which has nothing to do with political intrigue in the French Royal Court or a minor doctrinal brouhaha known as the Reformation, and everything to do with, in most parts of the world, Islam.
These days one doesn’t have to recall too far back to think of the most recent Islamic terror attack. In fact, I find myself getting the order of these now routine events confused. But like the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the murder of 85-year-old Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in Rouen is a turning point in this war of religion. Until now the terrorists have attacked the gratuitous artefacts of Western culture – the night clubs, the sports stadiums, the free press, the epicurean cafés, and the symbols of a quintessentially Western revolution – but not the Western church. Perhaps, however, it was always bound to happen as barbarians who hate the West adjust the focus of their terror to zoom in on what French catholic writer Jean Duchesne called ‘the root of the West, the West’s living source: Christianity.’ Notwithstanding sacramental differences, I take Duchesne’s point that the laser-like precision of Hamel’s murder meant it happened ‘in the time and the place where, tacitly and invincibly, it becomes most explicitly and intensely real: the celebration of the Mass.’ No one expects it to be the last such attack, nor should we think Islamic State and kindred caliphates will confine themselves to national or denominational boundaries.
But whereas the French massacres of 1572 brought clarity to the Protestants about the nature of their Catholic persecutors, the French murder of 2016 seems, inexplicably, to have brought only further obfuscation. As Damian Thompson noted in these pages recently, Pope Francis’ biographer Dr Austen Ivereigh referred to the ‘pointless banality of the Rouen murder,’ urging us not to glorify it by ‘ascribing religious motives.’ It’s as if the Huguenots were erroneously and unwisely glorifying those who slaughtered their compatriots by pointing out that it was the Catholics wot did it!
Sadly, however, the Western Church’s disingenuous approach to Islam began long before Hamel’s execution. Indeed, it appears that Hamel may have, tragically and unwittingly, been complicit. His parish obsessed over multiculturalism and its ecclesiastical twin, ecumenicalism. The local nuns sought out Muslim children from the public housing projects, teaching them to read, running other activities, and providing basic meals. The Archdiocese gave a block of land adjoining Hamel’s church to local Muslims to build the mosque attended by his murders. During Ramadan, other church facilities were used by Muslims for their various festal functions. As Maureen Mullarkey points out, ‘In terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the mosque and the ground under it belong forever to the eternal ummah. The [church] had ceded a portion of Normandy to the caliphate. Allah be praised!’ After the boys from next door came by and slit the priest’s throat, they apparently asked one of the hostage nuns about her familiarity with the Qu’ran. Sister Helene replied that she was indeed familiar with it and that ‘I respect it like I respect the Bible.’ In 1572 Catholics and Huguenots would have made common cause against this heretic. And against Hamel’s boss, the Archbishop of Rouen who said that there were ‘three victims: the priest and the two authors of the assassination.’ And probably against Pope Francis, who ties himself in rhetorical knots as the Vatican’s Chief Apologist for Islam.
At every opportunity the leader of the Catholic Church equates contemporary Christianity with Islam, and pronounces absolution on the latter for its violence and savagery. After the massacre at Charlie Hebdo he famously said ‘If my good friend says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch in the nose.’ Seriously. ‘It’s normal,’ he claimed. After Hamel’s slaying the Supreme Pontiff was quick to point out that ‘there is plenty of Christian violence as well… If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence.’ Yeah, nah! The Calvinists forgive your forebears. A couple of Saracens have just cut your priest’s throat; Islamic violence rather needs to be on the agenda.
Hamel’s last pastoral letter called for communities to live together and ‘accept each other as they really are.’ Christians (metaphorically at least) are all Huguenots now, perhaps even being prepared for massacre. The only distinction is whether we follow the priest’s pastoral advice and approach martyrdom (or whatever good or evil Providence has in store) with a view of the world as it really is, or whether we follow the priest’s practice and becomes martyrs to our own naivety about what is, sometimes at least, ‘a bloody and treacherous religion.’
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