The day after the brutal terrorist attacks in France by ISIS, French President Hollande gave his country’s immediate response:
My dear compatriots. What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war. . . because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless in its response [emphasis mine].
Hollande did add, significantly, that France would act “within the law, with all the means necessary,” and “in coordination with our allies who themselves are targeted by this threat.”
But there is no telling what “merciless” would come to mean in the days ahead. We know from our own troubled War against Terror, how easy it is, when facing a murderous enemy, to slide from just war principles, into acts of abuse and immorality. Terrorists certainly tempt us to abandon our moral beliefs, and every sensible person knows something more needs to be done to fight ISIS and the growing danger of global jihadism. Even the Pope and his diplomats, quite reluctant to condone military action of any kind, have acknowledged the necessity of using force to defend and protect innocent lives. The existential threat that ISIS represents is finally beginning to hit home in even the most optimistic diplomatic circles. As Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s top ranking ecumenical leader, said after the Paris massacres, the radical Islamic state is a “satanic terrorist organization,” which murders defenseless human beings—including countless Muslims—at will. And who can negotiate with the devil?
ISIS’s latest series of atrocities—in Paris, Beirut, on a Russian passenger jet—have cast a pall over the Church’s Holy Year of Mercy, which begins December 8th. When he announced it, last April, Pope Francis said:
I am convinced that the whole Church-which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners—will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.
These are moving words, but ones that may be increasingly hard to live up to. Europe is already in a social-political crisis, trying to deal with ruthless terrorists and an overwhelming flood of migrants. The continent’s widespread loss of Christian faith has hardened hearts, creating a gulf between secularized citizens, and deeply religious immigrants. America has broken into a bitter debate over how many Syrian refugees it will take in.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the US bishops’ committee on migration, has since spoken out:
I am disturbed. . . by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, These refugees are fleeing terror—violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization. . . .We can look at strengthening the already stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need.
This is a strong statement—but incomplete. No responsible American is blaming desperate Syrian refugees for the terrorist attacks in Paris, but there is a legitimate concern that members of ISIS, who have repeatedly declared their intent to harm America, will try to mingle amongst them, to secure a presence here. Given that the mastermind of the Paris attack posed as a refugee, this is not an irrational concern: even Pope Francis, the world’s greatest champion of migrants and refugees, has acknowledged the danger of such infiltration. More importantly, FBI director James Comey has said the U.S. can’t possibly vet all the Syrian refugees prepared to enter America, much less guarantee none will have ties to ISIS. Compassion has to be guided by common sense, and recognize the era we are living in. The Good Samaritan may have had to deal with thieves and wild animals, but not plastic explosives and suicide bombers.
If prominent leaders want to insist that America still has a moral obligation to take in thousands of Syrian refugees—a courageous, if unpopular, position in the current atmosphere—they should at least acknowledge the clear risks involved, and not disparage those who disagree in good faith.
One thing is certain: even as the Vatican itself has become a target of ISIS, Francis remains unbowed, and is continuing his Holy Year of Mercy as planned—as he should. The Bull he published in association with it, “The Face of Mercy,” emphasizes that mercy is a timeless virtue, which Catholics can put into practice every day:
Do not judge or condemn but forgive and give, avoiding gossip, envy and jealousy; have a heart open to the fringes of society and bring consolation, mercy and solidarity to people who live in precarious situations; take up the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy and joy; and observe the ‘24 Hours of the Lord’ initiative, which encourages prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation, in every diocese during Lent.
These acts may seem small and limited, against a global background of persecution and terror, but every act of kindness and mercy, practiced on a wide scale, by ordinary believers, would be significant.
Two inspiring events have shown what people are still capable of in our “merciless” new age.
The first was the extraordinary support shown for the Tour of St. Maria Goretti, whose remains recently travelled throughout the United States. More than 200,000 pilgrims stood in line, in dozens of parishes, to honor her heroic life and witness. Known as the “Patroness of Mercy,” she was stabbed fourteen times by an attempted rapist, but forgave her assailant on her deathbed, hoping aloud he would find God—which he astonishingly did in prison, serving his remaining days in prayer and penance.
Father Carlos Martins, who guided the tour, as caretaker, told a reporter that he receives at least one e-mail a day from someone who has been violently assaulted, but been able to forgive their assailant, through the intercession of St. Maria. Physical miracles have also been reported but, “the miracles are the least of what excites me,” Fr. Martins said, “You can go to Heaven with cancer in your leg,” but not “with unforgiveness in your heart.”
The second event occurred on that harrowing Friday in Paris, as the massacres took place. Anne Sophie de Chaisemartin, a producer for France 24, was at a friend’s apartment when shots rang out at the café across the street. Instead of seeking cover, she ran right to the scene of the tragedy, risking her life, and did all she could to help the victims. Even though she had been trained in first aid and survival, were she ever in a war zone, nothing prepared her for what she saw at that café. As she told NBC news:
This is the most terrible image I have in my head . . .to see 10, 11, 12, 13, maybe 15 people lying down. . . .
People started to feel the pain, and people started to scream and people started to panic. . . to ask. . . .‘ Treat me first, what are you doing? Help me! Look at this!’
She ran back to the apartment to grab a medical kit, and returned to try and save the wounded, clinging to life: “I remember, I have to stop the bleedings, that was the only thing in my head.”
Among the victims she aided was a young American woman—wounded and traumatized—who didn’t know a word of French, but whom Chaisemartin was able to calm by speaking English. Because her injury wasn’t as grave as others, the young woman had to wait a long time-a very long time—before medics arrived. Sensing her panic, Anne Sophie tried to joke with her, and remained close, letting her know she had a new friend. “I looked at her in her eyes for twenty minutes, non-stop.”
The American woman survived, and Anne Sophie hopes to reunite with her in the near future. Mercy is still possible in a world gone mad.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.