The murder of priests at the altar is nothing new. In Canterbury, Thomas à Becket was killed by three knights who heard Henry II say, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” and took it upon themselves to do the ridding. More recently, the archbishop in El Salvador, Óscar Romero, was shot after standing up for the poor and marginalised. Pope Francis called Fr Jacques’ murder “absurd” and all acts of violence are ultimately absurd. His killing was a desperate act which makes no sense beyond itself.
That Fr. Jacques’ death occurred while celebrating Mass gives a context to his priesthood. The Mass – or Eucharist or Holy Communion – is a re-presentation of Jesus’ crucifixion. John Paul II said in the Mass Jesus “left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there.” Just as, for Jews, the celebration of the Passover transports those celebrating back to the first Passover, and Israel being led out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. So the Mass, based on a Passover meal, transports those present to the Upper Room and the sacrifice of Calvary. When Fr. Jacques recalled the words of Jesus, “This is my body… This is my blood”, they are present in a sense that goes beyond memory.
Christians celebrate the Mass because it’s a re-presentation of the sacrifice of the one person who is both sinless and supremely good; the ultimate victim of injustice. This sacrifice fulfils all sacrifice and declares acts of violence absurd. Before Jesus, the Israelites offered animal sacrifice. An example being the scape goat where the sins of the people were prayed over a goat who was then driven into the wilderness symbolically carrying the sins of the people out of the community. However, animal blood is not perfect and had to be offered again and again. Jesus being truly good and truly innocent is offered only once and carries the sins of all so we no longer need to be weighed down by sin. The Mass isn’t a Danse Macabre but recalls a sacrifice freely given by the one who is truly good and truly innocent, shaming all acts of violence and prejudice.
Fr Jacques’ bishop said, “The church can take up no weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among people of goodwill.”