What do you say to someone who is killing you? It is seldom possible to decide in advance. We are told that Fr Jacques Hamel, aged 85, murdered while saying Mass at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray on 26 July, said, as his killers brought him to his knees to cut his throat: ‘Va-t’en, Satan.’
It is a reasonable thing to say, not necessarily identifying the attackers with Satan, just indicating that he is at work in the actions of the moment. Fr Hamel’s death reminded me strongly of that of St Thomas Becket at the hands of fellow Normans in 1170. Language had due importance on that occasion. Reginald FitzUrse, on breaking into the cathedral, shouted: ‘Where is Thomas Beketh [sic], traitor to the king?’ He meant to be insulting, for Thomas was not generally called by the nickname Becket (‘beaky’). FitzUrse’s use of it is the only occurrence in any of the dozen lives of Thomas written within three decades of his martyrdom.
Like Fr Hamel, Thomas made some resistance. There was an attempt to carry him out of the cathedral to kill him. His crossbearer Edward Grim held on to him and Thomas pushed away FitzUrse, who had grabbed at his cloak, exclaiming ‘Hands off, Reginald, you pander.’ Those words were recorded by Grim, whose arm was shortly after broken and wounded as he stood in the sword’s way. Writing in Latin, he made ‘lenonem’ the word used of FitzUrse. I hardly know what word the French use now, perhaps ‘maquereau’. The Anglo-Norman of Henry II’s court must have had itsown word.
As for Fr Hamel, he no doubt had a reason for choosing the phrase that, according to Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen at his funeral, he used twice. ‘Va-t’en, Satan’ occurs in a standard French translation of a verse from St Matthew’s Gospel. In the Authorised Version, it goes: ‘Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God.’
Jesus was the speaker, when Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would fall down and worship him. So Fr Hamel’s words seem less a casual exclamation than a declaration, in the face of death, of worship for God.