This is highly significant.
It has been done before, but only in the most exceptional cases, namely those of St John Paul II and St Teresa of Calcutta.
That it should be done for the Normandy priest murdered by jihadis earlier this summer places Fr Hamel on the same level of importance as Saints John Paul and Teresa.
I personally am all for a speedy canonisation. Indeed, I would go further than that, and would be pleased to see the Vatican issue a decree recognising that Fr Hamel is a saint, in that his sanctity is obvious, given that he was killed in odium fidei, in hatred of the faith.
Those who suffer thus are traditionally seen as martyrs and saints; and let us remember that saints were once made, not by a process in the Vatican, but by popular acclaim.
What strikes me as unusual about the Pope’s intervention is that this act does not seem to accord with the other things that the Pope has said about Islamist violence. If the murderers of Fr Hamel killed him in odium fidei, that means this was a religiously motivated murder.
Yet the Pope has said, after the killing of Fr Hamel, that there is no “war of religions”, and that if we are to talk of Muslim violence we must also talk of Catholic violence.
However, the Observer, no rightwing organ of opinion, had this to say about the Pope’s words in a July 31st editorial:
The pope may be correct that this is not a war of religions, certainly not a war led by established religious leaders such as himself. But to claim that the current, intensifying global battle for new, viable credos for the new century is not, in part, a religious and spiritual struggle, too, is surely delusional.Strong words, which point us to the fact that the papal narrative, which seems to suggest that there is violence on both sides, and that this is not a specifically Islamic problem, is pretty thin.
If Fr Hamel is to be made a saint, and soon, which is something I hope for, then how would that square with the narrative described above, and specifically with the Pope’s remarks that terrorism springs not from religion per se, but from economic and other motives?
The saints are there not to make us feel comfortable, but to challenge us. If or when Fr Hamel is canonised, this will present a useful challenge to Catholics.
It will ask us if we are living our faith, serving the Lord, and prepared to die in his service.
It will also present a useful challenge to the Islamic world, asking them to confront the fact, so often denied, that some Muslim people are addicted to violence.
And it will be a challenge to the world to see the current campaign of terrorism in its true light: not a struggle between Christianity and Islam – for Christianity attacks no one – but a struggle within the heart of Islam which is deadly to so many bystanders.
Of course there could be an attempt to “read” the life and death of Fr Hamel in a different light, and to see him as a martyr who died for dialogue and religious understanding. Indeed, such an attempt may already be underway.
If so, it would be another indication that the canonisation of Fr Hamel will not be without controversy. But that would be good – the saints are supposed to make us think.