The ancient city of Carcassonne in the Occitainie region of southern France is a magnificent city completely encircled by a wall. It harkens back beyond the Middle Ages but is mostly known for the medieval period. This past March the world was shaken by the murder of a French police officer by the name of Arnaud Beltrame. A terrorist from the Islamic State killed Officer Beltrame and three others in the city of Carcassonne while shouting his support for ISIS.
In the current world climate, it is sad that this has become more and more commonplace. We seem to see these events happening weekly in some parts of the world or within our own country. What makes this story an exceptional lesson to us is what the heroic police-gendarme did in that medieval walled city.
Redouane Lakdim, a Moroccan terrorist was a drug dealer who had spent time in the prison at Carcassone. On the morning of March 23, 2018, he hijacked a car after killing the owner and then opened fire on four gendarme-police nearby. Shortly after, Lakdim entered a supermarket and took hostages.
Here is where the story takes a turn. Officer Beltrame offered his own life in exchange for the hostages. He did not know who the hostages were or anything about them—but he offered his own life in exchange for a stranger. It is reminiscent of Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz who offered his life in place of an innocent stranger condemned to death. Officer Beltrame was later mortally wounded as the situation escalated. While Officer Beltrame was in the hospital he was given the Last Rites by a Catholic Priest who was also his friend. A few minutes before the officer’s death the priest said that the officer’s “superhuman sacrifice” had been inspired by his immense religious faith. Father Jean-Baptiste had not only given the officer the Last Rites, but also performed his marriage as he lay dying in the hospital bed. The priest had been already preparing the couple for marriage, and now in the last hours of the gendarme’s life, he was wedded to his fiancé while on a hospital gurney. Father Jean-Baptiste said the couple had been devout in the observance of their Catholic faith by coming to the priest’s abbey-church for several years.
Officer Beltrame did not start his life as a Catholic, but only came to the faith by a chance meeting with the priest years before his death. In 2008 the officer had a profound conversion at 33 years old. He was baptized, confirmed and received his first communion two years later in 2010. In 2015 he made pilgrimage to the shrine of Sainte-Anne d’Auray where the officer prayed to the Blessed Mother to meet the woman of his life.
Father Jean-Baptiste quoted from St. John’s gospel: “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for a friend.” What makes Officer Beltrame’s sacrifice so exceptional was that he did not lay down his life for a friend, he laid down his life for a stranger. This is what the officer had in common with Father Kolbe and with Jesus: they all died for the stranger. Father Jean-Baptiste continued in saying that the police officer realized that “his life belonged to God, to France and to his brothers in danger of death.” Finally, Father Jean-Baptiste tells us the secret to such selflessness; he said of Officer Beltrame “I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.”
The Catholic faith was brought to France in the 2nd century which earned France the title “the eldest daughter of the Church.” Today about 53% of the French consider themselves Catholic, while about 5% of the French attend Mass with any regularity; yet France is still the “eldest daughter” of Catholic Europe. It is the land of King Clovis I who converted from paganism to Christianity in the 5th century, Charlemagne who established a bond between church and state in the Holy Roman Emperor, and the country that gave us the 11 Discalced Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne who died at the guillotine during the French Revolution. It is the country of the greatest gothic cathedrals in all the world: Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres, Reims, Sacre-Coeur, Madeleine, Amiens and Lourdes. It is the country of the most famous saints of history: St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John Vianney, St. Joan of Arc, St. Bernadette, King Saint Louis IX, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
And it is from this “eldest daughter of the Church” that we were given Officer Arnaud Beltrame.
– Fr. Gerard Gordon