The sun rose over Paris as we walked to catch the train to the Saint Lazare station. We’d been in France for a week and were twenty-six hours shy of returning to Chicago. The pilgrimage been planned for a while, but this final day was off-script, inspired by a tragedy that had occurred three weeks prior.
July 26th, back in Chicago, had not been like other Tuesdays. While serving guests at Our Lady of the Angels Food Pantry, I was interrupted by shocking news: A priest in France had been slain during Mass. As I looked out at the many people waiting to be served, it struck me—we are living in such a different world now, no place seems safe anymore.
I was captured instantly by the story of Père Jacques Hamel. Quiet and humble with a true servant’s heart, he hadn’t retired at the accustomed age. When asked about this, he’d simply reply: “I will work until my last breath.”
From St. Lazare, we took an intercity train to Oissel. As we waited at the quiet station in Normandy, I looked down the long train track. Père Jacques must have looked down those same tracks and sat on the same bench I was sitting on.
Saint Etienne seemed asleep as we arrived. We saw an older gentleman carrying a baguette. “Oú eat l’église Catholique?” He gestured for us to continue down the road.
We passed a civic building draped with black bunting and a French flag. Lying on the ground were at least a hundred bouquets, messages, and candles. Another memorial was across the street. A few blocks later we found the sixteenth-century Church of Saint Etienne. I saw immediately that we would not be praying within its walls. A gate barred entry and barricades surrounded the building. But before the barricades where rows and rows of roses, candles, and letters from all over the world—letters sharing a word of consolation or a plea for peace. Children had finger-painted heart-shaped French flags and written messages begging for peace. Normandy’s Muslim community had left a beautiful floral arrangement—Père Jacques had been known for his interfaith work.
We stood there, praying. I had hoped to attend Mass there on this day, on which Dominique Lebrun, the Archbishop of Rouen, had asked Catholics to visit a church and light a candle for peace. It was the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of God. As I fingered my rosary beads, I recalled Jesus’s words: “No one has greater love then this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” This past Easter, Père Jacques had reflected on those very words.
As we continued our vigil, people came and went silently, paying their respects. A young man with a little boy approached me to ask whether I knew the Mass time. I introduced myself to François, and as I shared why we were there, tears welled up in his eyes. Père Jacques had baptized his daughter and touched their family with his warmth and kindness.
François offered to drive us to St. Therese Church, on the other side of town. We pulled up to the church and saw fifteen police officers there—yet another reminder of what had happened, and how things were different.
As we walked into Mass, Père Auguste Moanda-Phuati was preparing to proclaim the Gospel. He spoke of Mary and Jesus, their presence to us and her solicitude for us, her children, especially in the face of darkness. During the intercessions, prayers were lifted up for Père Jacques. When Père Auguste elevated the Host, I was in awe of the Living Mystery we were encountering. We were among those mourning a tragic loss. Yet, as we sought to comfort them, we recognized that they were filled with hope because Jesus was still in their midst.
After Mass, Père Auguste greeted us warmly and I told him in broken French why we were there—his tears told me that he understood. Sœur Danielle saw us, two young Franciscan Sisters, and asked us where we were from. I told her we’d come from Chicago to honor the memory of Père Jacques. She hugged us as she, too, held back tears.
My high-school French proved insufficient to communicate what was in my heart that day, but I didn’t really need words. Our presence expressed, better than words, the power of love that unites us in our sorrows and in our joys. It is this very love, the love of Jesus Christ, that will end the violence, terror, and hatred. All we need is the courage to proclaim the love of our Risen Lord to the world—in words and in deeds, in love and in forgiveness. This, indeed, is the legacy of Père Jacques.
Sr. Alicia Torres is a member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, and serves at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels on Chicago's West Side.