The head of the French archdiocese where an elderly priest was murdered two and a half years ago by Islamic extremists has been granted a special status in the criminal investigation of the assassination, giving him access to information that could help in the Church’s own examination of the possible sainthood of the priest.
Two men stabbed Fr. Jacques Hamel to death while he was celebrating Mass on July 26, 2016. The two came into the church just after Communion had ended, shouting “Allahu Akbar!”
Hamel, 86, was assistant priest at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a working-class suburb of Rouen. He had served as a priest for 58 years and chose to continue his ministry even after his formal retirement in 2005.
Religious dialogue was important to the priest, who had served on a local interfaith committee. After his death, local imam Mohammed Karabila, the president of Normandy’s regional council of Muslims, spoke publicly about their friendship and his admiration for Hamel’s life of service. On the first Sunday after the murder, Muslims attended Mass in churches across France as a sign of solidarity with Catholics and respect for Hamel.
In the midst of a worldwide outcry over the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, who were under fire from forces of the Islamic State group, there were immediate calls for Fr. Hamel to be canonized. Pope Francis, who has referred to the priest as a “martyr” and as “blessed,” a term that suggests the stage before a person is canonized in the Roman Catholic Church, granted an exemption to the five-year waiting period that is normally imposed before a canonization process can begin.
Authorities in the northern province of Rouen are looking into whether the two murderers had accomplices. Responding to the Archdiocese of Rouen’s request, Magistrate Emmanuelle Robinson on Monday granted Archbishop Dominique Lebrun the status of “civil party.”
This means that the archbishop will have access to the file in the secret investigation. Information found there, including a minute-by-minute account of what happened and what was said, testimonies and autopsies, might also help advance the cause of Fr. Hamel’s canonization.
In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro last May, Archbishop Lebrun said the request to become a civil party in the case was “essentially at the service of the beatification process that must establish the circumstances of death, especially the dialogues that the killers had with those present.”
“French justice is more competent than me to collect these elements,” he said. “In order to have access to the criminal file, you have to become a civil party.”