Even in Europe, the world’s least religious continent, a dramatic turn of events can turn a little-known public servant into a posthumous hero hailed as a kind of modern martyr.
Arnaud Beltrame, a police colonel, died of his injuries over the weekend after voluntarily taking the place of one of the hostages seized by a fanatical Islamist in a small French town. As it happens he was a devout Catholic who devoted much spare time to pilgrimages and helping with religious instruction. He won praise of two different kinds. Speaking for the French republic, President Emmanuel Macron described him as a man who had “fallen as a hero” and deserved “the respect and admiration of the entire nation.” In the Catholic circles to which Beltrame belonged, another vocabulary was used. He was praised as a man whose self-sacrifice reflected the faith that he had eagerly professed since a conversion experience a decade ago. Comparisons were made with Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish friar who in 1941 stood in for a fellow prisoner, a man with children, whom the Nazis were preparing to execute.
A French priest who had been preparing to solemnise the policeman’s marriage (he was already married civilly) instead found himself sitting at his friend’s bedside, conducting the last rites. With understandable emotion, the cleric described Beltrame as a man who “had a passion for France, her greatness, her history and her Christian roots which he rediscovered with his conversion.”
But whatever the truth of that statement about cultural roots, how much longer will such language be comprehensible, let alone appealing, to people growing up on the continent?