Fr Jacques Hamel, murdered today by Islamists in Normandy, was 84, and in his life would have seen his country transformed, from the Occupation to the Thirty Golden Years and through to this modern unhappy age. I can't imagine that a young priest in the age of the Piuses would have expected to end his life in such a manner, near to where Joan of Arc was martyred, but then Europeans are getting used to things that a few decades ago would have been absurd.
After the war, Europeans thought they could escape history, and retire to a secular, progressive world in which historical conflicts of identity would be a thing of the past. But instead of fascism and communism, even older, more retrograde ideologies have sprung up, and history goes on.
Christianity might be dying of indifference in western Europe but elsewhere it remains a living part of history, and that story includes persecution. Being a priest or a religious remains a dangerous task - earlier this year four nuns in Yemen were murdered, while a number of priests and bishops have been killed in Syria; likewise in Iraq, where some 60 churches were bombed during the conflict, the worst incident being the 2010 Our Lady of Salvation massacre where 52 men, women and children were slaughtered by a then little known outfit called the Islamic State of Iraq. The survivors were given asylum in France, which has always been especially generous towards eastern Christians.
In recent years the most dangerous place to be a priest has been Mexico, where the endless drug wars have put different types of bad guys in positions of power; but there is no doubting that Islamic intolerance remains the greatest threat to churchmen worldwide, as it does to Christians. Islamists have previously concocted plots to attack churches in France, but now that it has finally happened the future seems daunting.
France has several thousand churches still functioning to some degree or other (it has 40,000 in total, but population decline and secularisation put pay to many long ago) so it would be physically impossible to guard them in the way synagogues are now sadly protected in that country.
It's hard not to be extremely pessimistic about the situation in Europe, for identity-based violence has a momentum of its own, and it is difficult to imagine we'll get through this summer without more horror in France or Germany.
The irony is that many angry young Islamists are especially hostile to Christianity, yet this new wave of violence is a product of the very openness that Christianity brought to Europe. As Tom Holland explained in this magnificent essay:
'Even today, with pews across Europe increasingly empty, the attempt to fashion an inclusive and multi-faith future for the continent remains shadowed by a paradox: that it has patently been grounded in Christian doctrines. The inheritance of Christendom, even when most assertively repudiated, has proven a hard one to buck. The Bible, for all that it might be deployed to mandate the violence of warrior-kings and crusaders, was not only a tool of the mighty. It served as well to endow the weak, the poor, and the needy with a value that they had never before possessed. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies . . .’” Such a command, like many that Jesus gave, might seem so counterintuitive as to appear impossible to fulfill; and yet for all that, and however little many may have paused to contemplate its ultimate derivation, it has provided elites across Europe, in their efforts to accommodate immigrants from outside the Christian tradition, with their moral lodestar.'
The hierarchy of the main European churches, chiefly the Catholic Church, have been explicit in recent years in supporting mass immigration, its bishops just as filled with moral certainty as the secular supporters of open borders. It is very hard to argue against this Christian argument, yet I fear they have made a historical mistake. Like other utopian schemes that vaguely appeal to people raised on the language of Christianity, this will not end well.