The white-robed army of martyrs praises you! (Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus). So we pray in the great matutinal hymn Te Deum laudamus. Undoubtedly, Father Jacques Hamel, an 85 year-old French priest still serving a parish in the diocese of Rouen, Normandy, recited those words just yesterday on the feast of Saint James, the first of the apostles to be martyred. He prayed that hymn not knowing that the next day he would be murdered by a radicalized Muslim while celebrating Mass, and so might now already have joined that glorious white robed army of martyrs in their eternal hymn of praise. When encouraged by some to retire, he is supposed to have said, "I'll work until my last breath." And so he did - in a way he may never have anticipated!.
Of course, the formal determination that someone has been killed out of hatred for the faith is made only by the Highest Authority in the Church as part of the formal process of beatification and canonization. For now, we may speak of Father Hamel as a martyr only analogously, in a non-technical sense. We may - must - speak of him as someone who has given his life as a witness (which is what the word "martyr" means literally) for Christ, killed as a consequence of that witness out of hatred for Christ and his holy Church. His act of witness was, of course, his public exercise of his priestly ministry, proclaiming the sanctifying mission of the Church to the world for the sake of the world As with the more famous historical cases of Blessed Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), therefore, the very fact of being killed in Church while in the very act of celebrating Mass (or, in Becket's case, Vespers) cannot be ignored in assessing his killer's motivation. It creates a presumption of a religiously - as well as politically - motivated hatred on the part of the killers. Thus, the Postulator for Romero's Cause, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, himself highlighted the special significance of Romero's having been "killed on the altar."
Let us pray, therefore, for Father Hamel's soul, entrusting him as we entrust all the departed to the mercy of God, praying also that through Father Hamel's intercession the Lord may graciously hear and answer our prayers for deliverance from our enemies and for peace and security for the Church and for our troubled world - and that in due time, if God so wills, we may invoke and venerate Father Hamel as a martyr for the faith and a protector and patron against terrorism.