Normandy attack: Priest’s murder sends chill wind through presbytery

Even in Ireland, priests feel threatened in an environment that was once a sanctuary

Cardinal Raymond Burke's recent comments that Islam "wants to govern the world" and that, to avoid that fate, America needs to reassert "the Christian origin of our own nation", will be interpreted as dangerously provocative, in the light of the gruesome death of 86-year-old Fr Jacques Hamel in Normandy on Tuesday.

Placing the Christian faith and tradition in direct competition with Islam is not just sending all the wrong messages, it's fuelling a version of Islam at odds with the fundamentals of that faith and creating a "them" and "us" divide that places at risk, as is clear from the incident in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, public representatives of Christian Churches, such as Fr Hamel.

In recent years, priests in Ireland have grown used to situations where confrontation and verbal abuse is directly experienced and where the threat of physical violence is obvious. But while the events in Normandy are of a different order, they will add to the fearfulness already present in the lives of many priests.

Sacred space

The strong culture of Catholicism in Ireland has, heretofore, acted as a protection for priests, in that the person of the priest was regarded traditionally as inviolable. A further protection was an acceptance of the sacred space a church building represented and an even further protection surrounded the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Normandy events represent the rejection of those three strands and will send a chill wind through many a presbytery.

The notion of church sanctuary is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, from the sixth century onwards, respected even in civil law and regarded as an inviolable place of safety. Religious houses in Europe were traditionally safe places for refugees, even affording protection from arrest for the innocent and the guilty. Clearly notions of sacred space, much less sanctuary, are no longer respected.

Growing fearfulness

A growing level of fearfulness is now a reality for Irish priests. Most of us are elderly – the average age is moving up towards 70. We usually live alone, often in isolated presbyteries, and the perception is that the weekend’s collection is onsite. Added to that is the conviction among priests (due to the fallout from the child sexual abuse scandals and the belief that we’re easy targets for almost everything) that priests are taken for granted – by everyone. It compounds our growing vulnerability.

At a pastoral level, security runs counter to availability. A knock on the door late at night may well be a hostile hand but it may also be someone in dire need who believes that there should always be room at the inn, regardless. Absolute security of presbyteries and churches is not just impossible but unworthy of what we represent.

Fr Jacques Hamel, a target of bitterness and extremism, died a violent death in the sanctuary of his church, as he broke the Bread of Life for his people. Blessed, broken and given.

Fr Brendan Hoban is part of the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests