The shock was palpable as news spread on Friday afternoon that the British MP Sir David Amess had been killed. His murder – by a suspected Islamist – sent shockwaves through the political system in Britain. While every death in such circumstances is beyond awful, Sir David’s murder seems to have struck a deeper chord quite precisely because he was universally recognised as a decent man of the people who had no interest in politics other than public service.
Sir David was a committed and convinced Catholic who wore his faith on his sleeve. His was a lively faith that translated into an unshakable passion for the rights of the most vulnerable, particularly the unborn.
That he would die in the most diabolical circumstances is hard to believe – confounded by the apparent blasphemy of his alleged killer reportedly claiming to act in the name of God. Some have even speculated as to whether Sir David might have been targeted particularly because of his strong Catholic faith – this has been the case in France, for example, where Islamists have directed their attacks against publicly Catholic figures including priests.
Whether Sir David was killed because of his faith – and therefore died a martyr – will be a judgement for the Church to make as the civil penal process takes its course.
One troubling aspect around the circumstances of Sir David’s death is the fact that his local parish priest was denied access to the scene to dispense the Sacrament of the Sick, grant the Apostolic Pardon and administer the viaticum – the Eucharist given to a person near death literally ‘provision for the journey’.
A spokesman for the police said that officers had a responsibility to preserve what had become an active crime scene. One would have a certain sympathy for this diligence, but paramedics were permitted to enter the scene and a priest should have also been allowed.
In Ireland, where there remains more sensitivity around the sacraments, gardaí and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will routinely permit the entry of a priest – even if it is an active crime scene. There has never been, to my knowledge, a case in Ireland where a jury has been in doubt because a priest set foot on a crime scene. This is especially so in this case where there are multiple witnesses, the weapon has been recovered and the suspect in custody has reportedly confessed to the crime.
I think that it would be wrong to see the attitude of the British police as somehow anti-religious or disrespectful to Catholics. I do not think that this was the intention at all. I think it more likely that we are dealing with the actions of overly-scrupulous officers at the scene who are ignorant of just what the sacraments mean to Catholics.
And I don’t say ‘mean’ in the sense that they’re a nice touch. We Catholics believe that Jesus instituted the sacraments because they are vital for us.
There is now an astonishing ignorance of all things spiritual in modern life – and this is not confined to Britain. In Ireland too religion is often misunderstood as little more than an eccentric hobby rather than an essential part of people’s lives.
We have to take some share of the blame for this because of the enthusiasm with which many Catholics – undoubtedly well-motivated – embraced the Government policy of banning public worship during the pandemic as if it meant little more than having a pint in the local pub on a Friday night.
We have moved swiftly from a culture where belief in God was axiomatic to one where it is simply one option among others. The consequence is that people, even many Catholics, think it no longer really matters whether one is nourished by the sacraments or not.
The denial of what would sadly turn out to be the last rites to Sir David was cruel – even if unintentionally – and should force a rethink in British policing policy. We would also do well to mind that this same culture does not creep in here.
One thing we can be clear about, we should have no concern about Sir David’s eternal reward. Obviously God’s mercy is infinitely greater and overcomes any arbitrary restriction.
Anima eius, et animae omnium defunctorum fidelium, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace.