On Tuesday, July 26th, near Rouen, France, Fr. Jacques Hamel was killed by two terrorists as he was celebrating Mass. In the midst of the attack, the priest cried “Get away, Satan!” (“Va-t’en, Satan!”). The words of such a witness reward reflection.
Satan is a person, not a personification. Many people today think that the devil is merely a symbol of evil—a personification of an impersonal reality. He is the boogeyman of our cultural childhood: “It’s 2016! The devil couldn’t possibly exist in 2016, could he?” The teaching of the Catholic Church is clear: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing” (CCC 391). For those who think of history as unavoidably progressive, it may come as a surprise that demons hardly appear in the Bible until the New Testament. Jesus is like a light turned on in a filthy, forgotten room, suddenly scattering roaches and rodents. As for Fr. Hamel, it’s unlikely that he would decide to use his dying words to rebuke a mere metaphor. Apparently, this gentle and joyous priest took seriously what God has revealed to us about the rebellion of certain angels. Perhaps, as is apparently the case for many close to death, Fr. Hamel was granted a special awareness of invisible realities. Perhaps he was made especially aware of the one whom Jesus called “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).
Our war is not with flesh and blood. When Fr. Hamel was face-to-face with his assailants, what he saw was Satan. This is not to say that he identified the young men with demons. On the contrary, what he saw is that they had not come alone. When a priest is slain while offering the unsurpassable sacrifice of the Mass, we recognize, as if for the first time, that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
God desires that all men be saved (1 Tim 2:4), and therefore we are commanded to love our enemies (Mt 5:44). It may be that, in telling Satan to be gone, Fr. Hamel was loving those young men who were his enemies. Maybe he was worried that Satan, in leading them to kill his body, was thereby killing their souls.
The demons can influence us. In modern Western society, we tend to think that, at the core of our being, we owe nothing to anyone. There we are utterly unconstrained—totally alone and in control. This way of thinking is a little fantastical. God knows everything, and he is, in a real and mysterious sense, the cause of everything. And the fulfillment of everything is in God. Our freedom, moreover, is bound not only to God but also to other people. Neither God nor our parents consulted us when we were brought into existence. And as social, linguistic animals, we are ineluctably bound up with other people in a variety of relationships: familial, friendly, financial, civil, educational, religious, romantic. The case is similar in regard to angels. God creates in order that creatures may share in his life. One of the reasons that he created angels is that they might share in his governance of sub-angelic creation (not that he needed them, but that they might share in his life). Hence angels have been revealed to us as messengers and guardians. If a guardian is going to rebel, he becomes a destroyer and, in the worst case, a murderer. If a messenger is going to rebel, he becomes a deceiver. Hence the “murderer from the beginning” is called also “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). Jesus came to teach us that we are vulnerable to these evil spirits and that we need to look for strength from God, whose Christ is higher than the angels (Heb 1:4). It is not that we need to be paranoid and paralyzed by fear. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). It is only that we need to be realistic. The irony of these “Satanic” groups making headlines in recent years is that, though they themselves seem to be mostly radical secularists who, not really believing in Satan, use the name only to mock Christians, it is highly likely that they have in fact become tools of the devil. Even if they don’t believe in Satan, he probably believes in them.
Fr. Hamel reminds us that the demons’ war, at least in part, is with flesh and blood. Of course, he shows us also that in killing the body, they do not necessarily kill the soul. Even as Fr. Hamel was being killed, it was possible for him, perhaps on behalf of his young attackers, to echo the words of Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:23). Let us pray that Christ will enlighten these ignorant souls, so beholden to darkness that they think killing the disciples of Christ is offering service to God (Jn 16:2).
Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Easter Sunday Mass (used with permission)