Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

About God, evil, and a priest savagely murdered

St. Ettiene du Rouvray 

Here is a photo of St Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, France, where Father Jacques Hamel was murdered this past Tuesday. Etienne is French for Stephen, who was one of the original seven deacons in the Acts of the Apostles and the first of a long line of Christian men and women martyrs. Stephen was young. We can imagine the terrifying and sad shock the early Christians felt at his death.

We feel the particular sadness of Father Hamel's death because he was an elderly and venerable man, offering Mass, the action of a priest most expressive of God's love. Not to diminish Father Hamel's ghastly death, but we must remember that in the long history of the church, countless numbers of bishops, priests, nuns and monks have been murdered:

  • The sixteen Carmelite nuns of Compiegne whe were guillotined during the French Revolution.
  • That Archbishop Thomas Becket was stabbed to death in a procession on the way to Vespers in his own cathedral.
  • That St Stanislaus, and in our own time Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, were murdered like Father Hamel, at the altar.
  • That in the 1970's many nuns and priests were murdered in Central America for their steady presence and dedication to the poorest people.
  • Just a few months ago three Missionary Sisters of Charity were shot to death in the hostel where they took care of the abandoned elderly-sick. 
  • During the Second World War, Hitler had special concentration camps created for the clergy, and Josef Stalin rounded up all the bishops of Ukraine in one night, either murdering  or exiling them. 

Murdering priests and nuns, anywhere and any time, is indeed a great unleashing of evil, but so is the farmland of France being turned to dust in the First World War a great evil. The vaporizing of children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a great evil. "Oops, collateral damage" doesn't mean it's not evil. Dragging African American men by the neck behind a truck was great evil. Turning away a ship filled with Jews fleeing Hitler was an evil. The countries of  plenty turning a blind eye to an African country starving or dying of AIDS, an evil. 

So where is God in all of this? I think the more important question is: Where are we? Where is humanity? How we burden God with our folly and failure.

A young Syrian woman at World Youth Day said that today many people feel disaffected, as if there is no longer any meaning to life - that perhaps God is not God, or that God has left us. The long story of the Jews is filled with this kind of inner struggle.

Some people think the only way that God can be God, is for God to be mighty, "Smite my enemy," and make all the pain and sorrow go away. I  wouldn't agree with that. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel relates in his book NIGHT, of a twelve or thirteen year old boy being hanged by the Nazis at Auschwitz during the Second World War. A crowd of old Jewish men is forced to watch. The scene is particularly sad because in Judaism, a twelve year old boy is a most wonderful person, because he is a sign of the future, assuming the adult responsibilities of faith, especially fidelity to prayer. And so the murder of the boy was intended to demoralize the witnesses. 

And as the boy hangs with the noose around his neck, a voice calls out in fear and despair, "Where is God?" An old man  points to the dead boy and answers, "There! There is God."  How to say this? Because we are made in the image of God and so when a human being is murdered, starved, blown-up, shot dead, enslaved, exploited - it is God who is maltreated and abused. Jesus focuses this even more so: "Whatsoever you do to the littlest of my brothers and sisters, you do to me." Matthew 25:40,45. If we really believed this - everything would be different, including our too often, shameful political scene. 

For me, I am more apt to feel a profound sadness than anger. Too quick to feel and express anger, I think sadness is a sometimes forgotten or dismissed feeling. The day after the Orlando shootings, the dead hadn't even been identified, let alone buried, and people were being pushed by TV and radio commentators to "Get on with the healing" and "Move on." How sick is that!

One could say if we were really to feel the world's sadness we'd be so crushed we'd never be able to get up off the floor. Priests should be better at this - even to weeping  at the altar. 

And so, in the St. Etienne du Rouvray scene,  God is there, dead on the floor, and the two nuns shaking with horror and fear, and in the first responders who so bravely stepped into the incomprehensible scene. Feel the sadness. 

There really is nothing to say; it's too awful. I think at Mass, when we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, we should all be bent over, not even for worship, but for the stinging tears, the priest's voice breaking and trembling.  Religion talks too much (or conversely wrapping it up handily with "It's a mystery) while trying to explain things that are difficult or uncomfortable. There's nothing to say, only to weep.

We might do a little meditation right now. Go back up to the top of this post and imagine standing at the yellow police tape, looking over at the little stone church, calling to heart and mind the terrible thing that happened there on Tuesday and in other places everyday all around the world. Shhh.


  1. Father, you are so very good at redirecting my thoughts in the right direction. There is much to think about.

  2. "redirecting my thoughts" - that's a humble statement.

  3. You are right, Father, we need to ask ourselves where we are. What are we willing to do? How can we make things better. But I do get angry before sad. Angry that people do what they want at the expense of others. Whether it is killing in the name of God, or turning a blind eye to the poor on the streets or ignoring that AIDS is still running rampant in third world countries.