What has just happened at Saint-Étienne du Rouvray can only arouse horror and even anger at a hatred which is as cruelly cowardly as it is stupidly suicidal. After the terrorist attacks in France and in Germany, it is permissible to observe that this time these lunatics have not killed at random.
Until now (and with the exception of one attempt, fortunately thwarted, against a church in Ivry), the fanatics had attacked aspects of the flattering self-image that we “citizens” have of ourselves: the iconoclastic insolence of Charlie Hebdo, the pagan cult of sport at the French National Stadium, the carefree pleasure of the Bataclan and the boho outdoor cafés of the Eleventh Arrondissement in Paris, the 14th of July fireworks in Nice celebrating a Revolution that has promoted great ideals but also the guillotine . . .
This, today, was something else altogether. The target of this revenge was not the West in general, nor its complacent and egotistical prosperity, which can seem insulting to the penniless inhabitants of the world beyond. The target of this revenge was the root of the West, the West’s living source, even when it is unremembered—namely Christianity, in the time and the place where, tacitly but invincibly, it becomes most explicitly and intensely real: the celebration of the Mass.
The question that therefore arises is how far the French (and others) will identify with the victims—an old priest, savagely slain, and a handful of believers and sisters. Will many proclaim “Je suis Jacques Hamel,” just as all (or nearly) insisted “Je suis Charlie”? Or will most think it sufficient to point out that it is not good to murder anyone, and perhaps go on from there to defend freedom of conscience and even of worship? Something may already have shifted. What went viral on social media after the truck-killings in the Promenade des Anglais was not some defensive slogan, but “Pray for Nice.” The problem is not political or cultural, but spiritual.
Christians can only be shocked and disgusted, like everyone else who deserves to be called a civilized human being. But if they should be more shaken than anyone else, it is not because they are now entitled to think that their Eucharistic assemblies are in the crosshairs, that they are vulnerable to homicidal impulses stimulated by a delirious propaganda. It is because they find themselves confronted, in a way no one can desire or foresee, with the mystery of evil in its most naked brutality, namely the unbearable enigma that love is not loved, as revealed by the cross on which the Lord Son of God accepted to be nailed.
And so we continue to go to Mass, whatever our fears, to receive the love which conquers hatred by not rendering hatred in return. And, because we wish to love those who believe themselves to be our enemies and those who do not care, the doors of our churches remain open.
Jean Duchesne is emeritus professor at Condorcet College and a special advisor to the Archbishop of Paris.
This essay is translated from the French by Francesca Aran Murphy.