These few remaining days before Easter are the most sacred time of every year. I began writing this column to explain what the word “holy” in Holy Week means. But actions often speak and teach more loudly than words.
On Friday, March 23, an Islamist gunman in southern France attacked a supermarket. A jihadist loyal to ISIS, he murdered a worker and customer, and wounded many others. In the subsequent standoff with police, a gendarme lieutenant colonel — Arnaud Beltrame — exchanged himself for a female hostage. Several hours later, the gunman shot Beltrame in the throat and was then cut down himself by police gunfire. Beltrame died early Saturday morning in a Carcassone hospital. And therein lies a story.
Beltrame and his wife, Marielle, were already civilly married when they toured a local French Augustinian monastery in 2016. While there, they met and befriended a priest. Over the coming two years, the priest — a Father Jean-Baptiste — helped Arnaud and Marielle through dozens of conversations and many hours of marriage preparation to ready themselves for a Catholic wedding. Beltrame even walked the Camino Real pilgrim road in Spain with his father, who died only recently.
In fact, according to early press reports, the gendarme officer attended his father’s funeral exactly one week before he himself was fatally shot.
On March 24, the morning of Arnaud’s death, Le Monde reported that Beltrame was known for his courage, intelligence and commitment to public service; a leader well liked and widely respected for a generous devotion to his troops. This was high and sincere praise, but far from the most important details about his life. For according to Le Monde, the same Father Jean-Baptiste who prepared Arnaud and Marielle for their planned sacramental marriage also administered the sacrament of anointing and prayed with his wife shortly before the officer died.
The French Diocese of the Armed Forces released this public notice (here loosely translated):
ARNAUD BELTRAME: A heroic Christian officer who gave his life to save others.
Testimony of a canon of the Abbey of Lagrasse (Aude), the day of his death, March 24, 2018.
“It is through the coincidence of a meeting during a visit to our abbey … that I got to know Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame and Marielle, whom he married, on Aug. 2, 2016. We [became friends] very quickly, and they asked me to prepare them for their religious wedding, that I was to celebrate near Vannes this year on June 9. We spent many hours working on the basics of married life for almost two years. I had just blessed their home on Dec. 16, and we were finalizing their canonical marriage record. The very beautiful declaration of intention of Arnaud reached me four days before his heroic death.
“This young couple regularly came to the abbey to participate in Masses, the Office and teaching sessions, especially for groups of couples, Notre-Dame de Cana. They were part of the Narbonne team. They were there again last Sunday.
“Intelligent, sporty, voluble and lively, Arnaud spoke readily of his conversion. Born into a family with little religious practice, he lived a genuine conversion around 2008, at almost 33 years old. He received his first Communion and confirmation after two years of catechumenate, in 2010.
“After a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray in 2015, where he asked the Virgin Mary to meet the woman of his life, he became friends with Marielle, whose faith is deep and discreet. Their engagement was celebrated at the Breton Abbey of Timadeuc at Easter 2016.
“Devoted to the gendarmerie, he always had a passion for France, its greatness, its history and its Christian roots that he rediscovered with his conversion.
“By taking the place of hostages, he was probably animated by his commitment to an officer’s heroism, because, for him, being a policeman meant protecting others. But he knew the incredible risk he was taking.
“He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness. So: Was he allowed to take such a risk? It seems to me that only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice which is today the admiration of all. He understood, as Jesus told us, that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). He knew that if his life belonged to Marielle, it also belonged to God, to France and to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.
“I was able to join him at the hospital in Carcassonne around 9pm last night [March 23]. The gendarmes and the doctors and nurses opened the way with remarkable delicacy. He was alive but unconscious. I was able to give him the sacrament of the sick and the apostolic blessing on the threshold of death. Marielle took part in these beautiful liturgical formulas.
“We were [in the Friday and Saturday hours just] before the opening of Holy Week. I had just prayed the office of None [‘Ninth’] and the Stations of the Cross for him. I asked the [medical staff] if he could have a Marian medal, that of the Rue du Bac de Paris, near him. A nurse attached it to his shoulder.
“Of course I could not [sacramentally] marry him and Marielle, as a press article incorrectly said, because he was unconscious.
“Arnaud will never have children in the flesh. But his astonishing heroism will, I believe, inspire many imitators, ready to give themselves for France and for her Christian joy.”
What’s the point of this story?
Arnaud Beltrame was a thoroughly human being like the rest of us. He had, by some accounts, dabbled in freemasonry before his religious conversion. He was imperfect and not a martyr, at least not in any way we usually mean the word. He was an ordinary civil servant doing his everyday job on a day that turned out to be anything but ordinary. He didn’t need to offer himself as a hostage. He could have done otherwise. He didn’t need to do anything risky; he was a man in love getting ready for a wedding, and there were other police officers on the scene.
But if “martyr” means witness (and it does), he certainly did offer an example — a witness — of a life lived for others. He was a man who deliberately shaped and disciplined his own life until it became a habit, a reflex, to place the well-being of others before his own. He was also a man with the common sense and substance of soul to ask what his life meant, to listen for an answer, and to find that meaning in his Catholic faith.
This week is Holy Week, and the original Hebrew meaning of that word “holy” is other than. God’s ways are not human ways. They are other than ours; higher and better, more powerful, moving and redemptive than our own.
It isn’t logical, it isn’t “normal,” for anyone to place his or her life in harm’s way for a friend, much less for a complete stranger, as Arnaud Beltrame did. Only a special kind of love can make a person do something so unreasonably beautiful. This why John 15:13 says that no greater love exists than laying down one’s life for the sake of another. It’s a love so great that on a Friday 2,000 years ago, it turned the world on its head and — with divine irony — defeated death through an instrument of torture called the cross.
No greater love exists than the love God bears for each of us. That’s the meaning of these holy days. So may God give all of us the blessing of a Holy Thursday, a profoundly Good Friday, and the joy of new life in the Resurrection this Easter.
As the word of God reminds us: Love is as strong as — no; even stronger than — death.
Archbishop Charles Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia.
His columns, which appear originally at CatholicPhilly.com, are reprinted
with permission from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.