Hilaire Belloc once said of the Church: “No merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” This proof of the Church's divine origin remains true in every season, but it seems especially appropriate for our current moment. The knaves seem to have the upper hand. Their imbecility is evident in the vacuous discussions of “clericalism” and the “desire for riches” at the heart of the shocking and demonic abuse of both minors and adults. Yet while this knavish imbecility begets phrases akin to those of the PR departments called in by oil companies after massive spills—what is called “crisis management”—the evidential causes of the crisis are ignored, obfuscated, or even denied.
To the many knaves in the Church can be added the deviants, the weaklings, and the merely mediocre. Yet the Church is of divine origin. Every Sunday believing Catholics recite that the Church is “Holy” and “Apostolic,” despite many of the apostles throughout its history also being knaves; such is the divine paradox of an institution being at once both human and divine.
The Church is also beautiful and—as Benedict XVI remarked many times—that beauty and the truth of the holiness of the Church is seen most powerfully in the lives of the saints. As George Weigel pointed out during the wave of sex abuse stories at the beginning of the millennium, throughout times of crisis in the tumultuous history of the Church—and there have been many—great saints emerge to reform and renew the Church’s life. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, a time of great corruption and decay, figures like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, and St. Catherine of Siena emerged to call the faithful, both clerics and laity, back to lives of holiness. When Francis of Assisi heard the crucifix at San Damiano call him to “rebuild My Church,” despite what some proponents of radical reform fancifully believe happened, casting Francis as a thirteenth-century Che Guevara, Francis sought papal approval for his movement of reform. His instincts, as his contemporary biographers wrote, were profoundly Catholic.
If, in times of gross infidelity and lack of integrity—“knavish times”—God raises up men and women to renew the Church and restore hope, it might be worth asking: Who are the models the Lord is giving us for our time? Two priests separated by geography, culture, and age, yet united by priestly fidelity and the ultimate witness of martyrdom, give us hope and encouragement.
They are Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old priest who was martyred by Islamists while saying Mass in his Church in Normandy on July 26, 2016, and Father Ragheed Ganni, the young Iraqi Chaldean Catholic priest martyred outside his Church in Mosul on June 3, 2007. Both embody the virtues and integrity of purpose the Church needs to celebrate when the evil deeds of a few have so diminished the priesthood.
Father Jacques, a priest long past retirement age (but does a priest ever really retire?) was, according to a new biography published in French by Armand Isnard, “unusually focussed on fulfilling the most fundamental tasks of any priest.” In his review of the book, Samuel Gregg recounted how the biography stressed the “ordinariness” of Fr. Jacques’s priestly life.
Fr. Ragheed, ministering in Mosul, Iraq, where Christians have lived since the time of the apostles, also lived an “ordinary” priestly life in extraordinary circumstances. The wilfully or unintentionally ignorant might imagine that the nightmarish existence of Christians in Iraq only began in 2014, when the Islamic State emerged. Sadly, Christians were being robbed, kidnapped, and murdered at an alarming rate—particularly in Mosul—since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Fr. Ragheed said Mass, heard confessions, and visited the sick—in other words did the “ordinary” duties of a pastor—all the while aware that this might cost him his life.
Fr. Jacques did not experience these imminent threats. He did, however, have to contend with the dispiriting and enervating experience of secularism, which had turned the French countryside into a spiritual wasteland. Nevertheless, Fr. Jacques’s continual refrain on all occasions was to call his people to holiness and to go about his priestly duties—despite his age—with diligence and devotion.
For both Fr. Jacques and Fr. Ragheed, their deaths signified that the devil hates the priesthood, and will do everything to destroy it. Father Jacques, as we know, was martyred—his throat was slit while he was actually celebrating Mass. Fr. Ragheed and three sub-deacons were shot outside their Church immediately following the celebration of Mass. There is no Mass, no Communion, no sacramental forgiveness, and no anointing of the sick without the priesthood. Father Ragheed’s murderers had demanded that he close his parish Church—why, they shouted at him that fateful day, had he not complied? “How,” he responded, “can I close the House of God?” Before they shot him and the sub-deacons, the Islamists demanded they renounce their faith in Christ and embrace Islam. They refused, their last and greatest act of witness.
Ordinary priests—one young, one old—were martyred for the Faith, but their martyrdom was the seal or final act of a priestly life well lived. Dying in odium fidei, “hatred of the Faith,” they are already saints in heaven. We only await the official confirmation of the Church, which has already begun for both of these holy men. The Church canonizes saints not only to ask for their prayers, but to give an example and—yes, in times of crisis—to prove that “ordinary” holiness is possible.
The abuse of those entrusted to the care and ministry of priests was, and is, one of the foulest and cleverest ploys of the father of lies imaginable, but it was also the most demonically successful way of subverting the gift of the priesthood. According to the biographer of Fr. Jacques, the “essential element of his day” was the celebration of the Holy Mass. The ministry of prayer, the sacraments, preaching and teaching—zeal for God’s House—was at the heart of the life and witness of Father Jacques Hamel, priestly martyr of Normandy, and Father Ragheed Ganni, priestly martyr of Mosul. Their lives inspire and encourage us: Amidst knavish imbecility, the ordinary holiness of faithful priests ensures the House of God will not be closed.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501c3 charity helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.