I WAS literally stopped in my tracks at the weekend. I was walking past the television when suddenly a photograph was flashed up of Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, the French policeman who offered himself in place of a female hostage in the Trèbes siege, and was killed as a result.
It was the warmth of his smile which so stunned me. It brought home not just the waste of a life lost, but the reality of what lies behind the phrase that we can too glibly use about a man who lays down his life for others. The grim irony of this happening as we entered Holy Week is too obvious to point out.
But something else struck me after the Palm Sunday service, with its reminder of the terrible contrast between the jubilation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and his ignominious execution less than a week later. On the radio, on Monday morning, the French ambassador, in a forceful intrusion into the secularity of the Today programme, referred to Lt. Col. Beltrame as “a Christian martyr”.
It was not the only intrusion. The nobility of his self-sacrifice stood out like an oasis in the desert of a news agenda that was as tawdry and seedy as it was negative: Australian ball-tampering; Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism; disabled passengers stranded at airports; President Trump and the paid-off porn star. They were all stories about people being caught out.
Lt. Col. Beltrame was not caught out. He stood out, rather as did St Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonised after volunteering to take the place of a fellow prisoner condemned to death at Auschwitz. It was no surprise to find out that Lt. Col. Beltrame was a recent convert to Christianity. Born into a non-religious family, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 33, in about 2008. He made his first holy communion, and was confirmed two years later.
Just three years ago, in 2015, he made a pilgrimage to Brittany to a shrine to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. There, he asked our Lady to help him meet the woman of his life. A year later, he met his fiancée, Marielle, during a tour of an abbey. They were due to marry in June. No deathbed ceremony was conducted in hospital, as has been reported. Real life is not so romantic. He received the sacrament of the sick, and Marielle responded to the liturgical formulas. His faith, like hers, was deep and discreet.
“He gave his life for strangers. He must have known he didn’t really have a chance,” his brother said. “If that doesn’t make him a hero, I don’t know what would.” He was no stranger to heroism. He had been awarded the Cross for Military Valour for peacekeeping work in Iraq in 2005, and, in 2012, he received France’s highest award, the Légion d’Honneur. And he had practised what to do in a terrorist supermarket siege as recently as December, in his position as deputy commander of anti-terror police in the Aude region.
If he was prepared, no one else was. “We were shocked when we heard what had happened,” his cousin said, “but we were not surprised.”