On Sept. 14, Pope Francis was clad in red — the color of martyrs — as he celebrated a requiem Mass in honor of Father Jacques Hamel, the French priest assassinated in July by youths claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.
Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, France, brought to the Mass a framed photo of Father Hamel and asked the pope to sign it. Instead, the archbishop told reporters afterward, the pope “immediately told me to put it on the altar. At the end of Mass, when he was greeting everyone, he signed it and said to me, ‘You can put this photo in the church, because he is “blessed” now.’”
In his homily, Pope Francis said that just as the first Christians were martyred for their faith, so, too, are Christians today.
“In this history, we arrive to our Father Jacques. He is a part of this chain of martyrs.”
I thought about Pope Francis’ words, and about Father Hamel, as I reflected on my recent trip to Rome.
Having never been east of Boston, flying from Chicago to Rome was a new and exhausting experience.
First, the math didn’t add up. We went from wheels up to wheels down in about 8 1/2 hours, taking off from the Midwest at 3 p.m. and landing on Italy’s western coast at 6:30 a.m. Somewhere over the Atlantic, seven hours’ worth of time disappeared.
None of us really slept on the plane, and because our hotel room wouldn’t be ready for hours, we dropped off our luggage and hit the cobblestone streets of Rome, dragging our weary bodies around the centuries-old buildings like three zombies.
But adrenaline kicked in, and we navigated the narrow, twisting alleyways to the door of the first of the nearly two dozen churches we visited in Rome. Outside of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French), two imposing security guards manned the street, clad in camouflage and carrying military style rifles. I didn’t make the connection as to why security was so tight until we entered the dark and stunning 16th-century Baroque church, which is the national church of France in Rome.
As we began exploring the silent, nearly empty church, we took in the side altars on the right-hand side of the nave. Each was more impressive than the last, as museum-worthy paintings clung to the walls.
As we came to the last altar, I saw a familiar face. On a side table near the altar sat a picture of Father Hamel. Candles were lit nearby, and dozens of slips of paper — prayer requests and tributes, I gathered — lined the altar rail. As I stared at his photo, I took a few minutes to reflect on Father Hamel’s sacrifice.
The experience changed my outlook for the rest of the trip. I entered this first church as a tourist, camera in hand, ready to take pictures of the three famous works on the life of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, hanging in a side altar across the nave.
In the first, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Jesus points to the evangelist, who looks shocked to be singled out in the crowd. Above the altar, in “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” an angel representing the Holy Spirit hovers over Matthew as he writes his Gospel. The final piece, “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” shows a young man standing over the saint with sword in hand.
The historic paintings showing one of the Church’s first martyrs are stunning and inspiring, but no more so than the small, simply framed picture of one of the Church’s most recent martyrs sitting near an altar on the other side of the church.
Father Hamel, pray for us.
Scott Warden is OSV's associate editor for content. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.