A civil war strikes close to home – On the death of Fr. Hamel

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After Brussels, Paris, Nice, Würzburg and München, all the news about new terrorist attacks is getting a bit much. Yesterday the name of another town was added to the list, although as places go, it does not exactly rank among the world’s major cities. But what happened in Saint-Étienne-de-Rouvray is a horror in a too-long list of horrors.

Father Jacques Hamel, 86, brutally murdered for, we can assume, the ‘crime’ of being a Catholic priest. His murderers already served their punishment by the guns of the police. A second hostage in critical condition in the hospital. France, if it still can after recent months, in shock, and many with her.

Of course, the murder of Fr. Hamel is not unique. Christians in the countries like Iraq and Syria live in fear of their lives every day, and with good reason. The rabid dogs of ISIS and likeminded radicals do not shy away from killing all those who they consider to be enemies of a fictitious brand of pure Islam – and Christians are at the top of their lists. This is, however, the first time that such a cold-blooded murder of a priest in the process of celebrating Mass has taken place in Europe. It only serves to further add to the feelings of fear and anger that already exist.

It is so easy to give in to those feelings. To wish death and destruction on people who are as deranged as the murderers of Fr. Hamel. But, of course, we are Christians. We are called to do better than that. To not give in to base feelings, to not in the first place think of how these horrors make us feel. In this case, our first duty should be with the victims – Fr. Hamel, the sisters and altar servers who were also held hostage, and, yes, all those who will siffer the backlash that will follow. And then, let us think of our role in that backlash. Will we allow ourselves to fear and hate the innocent who happen to share a faith (even in name alone) or cultural background with today’s killers? Our will we rise above it and make a distinction, not between Christians and Muslims, but between good and evil, between the way of God and the way of the devil?

Ultimately, the solution to the crisis in the Muslim world, which several people have already called a civil war within Islam, does not lie in more hate and fear, but neither does it lie solely with us. In the end, the Muslim world itself needs to find and implement the solution. We can help, but it can’t be enforced by us.

I am reminded of a blog post by Bishop Stefan Oster, which he wrote following the attack in Nice. The bishop of Passau began his text like this:

“After this act of terrorism – and after the ones in Paris, after Brussels, after Istanbul, after Madrid, after, after, after… After the atrocities committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in all the continents of the world, after, after, after… When will the collective, the great common outcry from all the world’s peaceloving Muslims, who are truly devoted to their god, finally come, that they will no longer let their faith be abused by terorrists? When will the religious and political leaders of the Muslim world finally come together and declare to the world that Islam and terrorism are not compatible?  And when will such a great demonstration of peacefullness finally take place among us – by the great number of Muslims living in our country?”

As for us, let’s start with prayer for the repose of the soul of Father Jacques Hamel, may he rest in peace and see the Lord whom he served for so many years and live in His glory.

Prayer and the authentic image of God – Bishop Punt’s letter for Advent

In his message for Advent, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam addresses the distortion of religion in the world, and presents a two-fold solution:

Punt“The world is in chaos, but there is hope. Humanity isn’t completely left to its own devices. 2000 years ago the heavens were broken open. Shepherds saw a great light. Angels showed them the way. The Messiah was born. God’s Son become man. Since then His Spirit comes down on this world. But the Evil is also making tracks. In the end, good shall be victorious. That is a divine promise. The Lord knows His time.

Distorted images of God

If that perspective of God, hope and eternity no longer exists, everything changes. Existing norms and values, the sense of humanity, everything loses its foundation. We have seen it in the last century, dominated by atheist ideologies and an unprecedented contempt of humanity. But religion in itself is no guarantee for peace and humanity either.

Distorted images of God and eternity can equally lead to cruelty. That is something we see especially in our time. In the extremism of the so-called Islamic State religion has taken on inhuman forms. No one seems to have an answer ready. Not the moderate and authentic Islam, and even less the western politicians and military. How to fight people who do not fear death, since they see it as a quick road to Paradise, even if they have to drag innocent people along with them. How to deal with people who think they can please God by cutting the throats of “unbelievers”. Nothing can stand up to that. Politicians and soldiers are powerless.

A father looks for his child

This is mostly a moral and spiritual question. It concerns closing the sources of hate, and denying the distorted images of God and eternity. Extremists draw their strength and fanaticism from them. For decades their hatred against the west has grown, partly because of western neocolonial politics.

What can we do now? I think two things: presenting an authentic image of God, and prayer. Recently I saw a documentary about a father looking for his son. There had been a fight at home, the boy had been unjust to his parents, went out into the world and had gone missing. His father then resigned from his job, sold everything he owned and went looking for his child. For years he travelled, across half the globe, until he had found his son and was able to embrace him again. All the fighting and accusations were completely forgotten.

There is no more beautiful image of who and how God is. You don’t need to look for him. He is looking for you. You only need to allow yourself to be found, by being open for His existence and His love, by the willingness to direct your life towards truth and justice, and by praying, even as a heart’s sigh. No prayer is lost.

Saved by prayer

Centuries before Christ the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, advances on Jerusalem with an enormous army. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, refuses to surrender the city. Sennacherib writes him a  letter and taunts him, “Who do you think you are? You have seen how Assyria has defeated all peoples. How would Jerusalem be saved? Do not be fooled by the God you trust, He will not be able to save you from my hands.” Hezekiah goes to the Temple and places the letter on the altar of the Lord, and prays, “Lord, you alone are God over all kingdoms of the earth. Hear how Sennacherib taunts you, the living God. Save us from his grasp, so that all people of the earth will see that You alone are God”.

That night, Scripture informs us, the angel of the Lord brought down death and confusion on the camp of Assyria. Sennacherib struck camp and returned in humiliation to Assyria, where he died.

Whether it concerns our personal life or the situation in the world, the Lord waits for our prayer and confidence to bring salvation. Let us place our prayer and good deeds, but also our needs and sins, before the Child of Bethlehem, like the shepherds and the wise men did. He will give us peace and a solution, although perhaps along very different roads than we would expect. In that sense, I wish you a blessed Christmas.”

+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.