Every morning, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe tweets out the martyrology. It is pathetically easy to become blasé about this, as I was on Tuesday, scrolling through the daily list:
- Blesseds Mary Margaret of St. Augustine Bonnet and four companions, virgins of the Order of St. Ursula, guillotined in 1794 at Orange.
- Blesseds Vicente Pinilla and Manuel Martín Sierra, priests, shot in 1936 at Motril.
- Blessed Titus Brandsma, O.Carm, euthanized in 1942 at Dachau.
- Priest and churchgoers held hostage in Rouen.
At first I mistook this last—a tweet from a news agency—as part of the basilica’s martyrology. In fact, it was not really a mistake. Jacques Hamel, priest, throat slit in 2016 at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.
A friend once told me that what surprised her most about becoming a nun was the hypervisibility of religious life. People would come up to her on the street and tell her their life stories. They would stop her in the store and drop prayer requests. Perhaps it’s the relative rarity of habited religious nowadays that makes people more likely to take the sight of one as a sign from God. People open up to nuns.
But that same quality of public religiosity also makes nuns—and priests and brothers—terribly vulnerable. People open up to nuns, but they also stare at them. They mutter, giggle, snapchat. They notice a declaration of difference, the way they notice it in hijabi Muslim women and turban-clad Sikh men, and they react. A nun in her habit, a priest in his collar, becomes an anthropomorphic Church onto which passersby can project whatever Catholicism means to them.
Megan Ryland has characterized this problem of “hypervisibility” as a basic disconnect in mainstream Western culture, where certain groups are talked about but not heard from. The result is a media landscape full of stereotypes. (Singing nuns. Abusive priests. You get the picture.) In other words, religious are forced to be symbols before they are people in the public consciousness. And so when a nun is stopped on the street, it is often so that a person can work out their issues with the Church, not with her. And when Fr. Jacques Hamel is made to kneel and die, it is the Church that is attacked in his body.
This is not how Christians in the West expect martyrdom to be. The murder of a priest in the middle of Mass seems like it should entail an intensely personal narrative. One like the story of Thomas Becket, who made an enemy of the king and his knights, or of Oscar Romero, who did the same with the Salvadoran state. We don’t expect martyrdom to seem random, impersonal. In odium fidei is the letter of the law, yes, but we expect at least a little in odium personae. We have that luxury in the modern West, to presume individuality, while our Roman memory of mass persecution lives on in the Middle East.
Jacques Hamel was not a rabble-rouser or underground preacher or a most-wanted. He was a parish priest. He had brought the blood of Christ to the altar every day for nearly sixty years before he added his own. He used to laugh off colleagues who encouraged him to retire, saying, “I’ll work until my last breath.”
His preaching reveals the wisdom of that commitment, which brought him to his death hill and the murmurs of santo subito. Fr. Jacques once wrote on All Saints Day:
Many are the saints we celebrate on the first of November. We know some of them by name. They are celebrated on the liturgical calendar. In this “great multitude,” many are anonymous. We believed them to be lost, but they live in God. . . . Do not be afraid of holiness!
Happy feast to all.
Catherine Addington is a graduate teaching assistant in Spanish at the University of Virginia. She tweets here.