Is the recently martyred 85-year-old French priest, Fr. Hamel, murdered by radical Islamic terrorists during the celebration of Mass now an equipollente Beatus? In other words, has Pope Francis "equivalently" beatified him? Is that what happened at the Pope's Mass Wednesday, on the feast of the Holy Cross, with the Archbishop and some 80 pilgrims from Hamel's diocese of Rouen?
"Equivalent" beatification (or canonization) occurs when, without following the complete process prescribed for beatification (or canonization) in the Church's law, a Pope confirms an existing cultus, authorizing official public veneration of someone already widely venerated at least locally. A good example of this was Pope Benedict XVI's "equivalent" canonization of Hildegard of Bingen in 2012. For a variety of reasons, back in the Middle Ages, Hildegard's formal process never quite got completed. Even so, she was widely, if unofficially, seen as a saint - especially in Germany. Pope Benedict remedied the situation by a papal decree confirming her cultus and recognizing her feast day (September 17). This made it possible for him to proclaim her a Doctor of the Church. (Hildegard and Saint John of Avila were both proclaimed Doctors in Saint Peter's Square at a ceremony I was privileged to attend with a pilgrimage group from New York on October 7, 2012.)
A year later, Pope Francis famously "equivalently" canonized Saint Peter Faber, one of the early Jesuits who for some reason had been passed over when his early Jesuit colleagues had gotten canonized in the normal way. So there is nothing novel about "equivalent" beatification or canonization - apart, obviously, from its relative infrequency. The complex formal process remains the norm, but there are exceptions (usually in cases like Hildegard and Peter Faber) where an "equivalent" action by Apostolic Decree seems appropriate.
What makes this instance so surprising is, of course, that Fr. Hamel is not some long-ago and long venerated figure, who, for some reason, never made it through the normal process. Instead he is a very recent martyr, in whose case the normal process could easily be carried out, if desired by the Church, even in an expedited manner.
Actually, two relevant things were explicitly said by the Pope Wednesday. In his very fine homily, Pope Francis spoke of martyrs and martyrdom, of how Christians continued to be martyred today, and called Fr. Hemel "part of this chain of martyrs." And, later in his homily, he referred again to "this example of courage, along with the martyrdom of his life," and then went on to say, "He is a martyr, the martyrs are blessed."
Even more strikingly, after the Mass, the Pope apparently authorized the Archbishop of Rouen to permit images of Fr. Hamel in Rouen's churches and pre-emptively answered the obvious objection by saying to the Archbishop, "If anyone says you don't have the right to do it, tell them the Pope gave you permission."
Normally, in the case of an "equivalent" beatification, one would expect a written Apostolic Decree, which would not only confirm the Blessed's cultus but would also assign him a day in the calendar. That may yet come. In view of what the Holy Father said yesterday, we should perhaps not be surprised if it does come. And what a beautiful benefit to the Church that would be!