ARNAUD BELTRAME, TIMELESS HERO

Think about the beautiful things in your life. The unshakable love of your parents for you. What it felt like to fall in love with the love of your life. Your first baby’s first smile. All the shared experiences that forged unbreakable bonds between you and your siblings. Memories of crazy-fun times spent with friends. When winter turns to spring and summer to fall. A mountain sunset or a beach-side sunrise. Think about all of it, and then ask yourself if, under any circumstances, you’d ever sacrifice it all for a perfect stranger?

Now imagine you’re Arnaud Beltrame, a police officer dispatched to the scene of the hostage situation that occurred in Trebes, France last week. A terrorist has stormed into a supermarket and taken fifty hostages. On the way to the store, he carjacked a vehicle, killing one person in the car and wounding the other. He then fired six shots at a group of police officers, wounding one in the shoulder. He entered the supermarket guns blazing, murdering two and wounding more than a dozen others. The terrorist, now claiming to be a soldier of the Islamic State, is demanding, in exchange for his hostages’ lives, the release of a fellow Islamic State soldier who participated in the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 130 people dead and about 350 wounded. During the ensuing hostage negotiations, all but one of the hostages, a young mother, are freed.

It’s a glorious early spring day in southern France. Officer Beltrame has a loving mother and brother. He’s in the midst of a brilliant career as a police officer. He and his fiance, Marielle, are busy finishing the marriage preparation course required by the Catholic Church and planning their June wedding.

But, Officer Beltrame, with every beautiful thing in life to live for, lays down his gun and walks into the store to take the place of the last hostage. Inevitably, two hours after entering the store, he is shot and stabbed and later dies of his wounds, but not before marrying Marielle in a deathbed ceremony conducted by the local parish priest

His mother said, “I am not surprised that it was him. He has always been like this.” She described her son as someone whose reason for being was to defend others’ lives. His brother said,” He was very aware of what he was doing; he didn’t hesitate for a second.” French President, Emmanuel Macron, said, “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadist terrorist, he fell as a hero.”

Watching the news every day, it’s easy to believe that the West has lost its soul. It seems perfectly clear that materialism and hedonism have killed off our cultural conscience in favor of the guilt-free pursuit of our own selfish goals. But, Arnaud Beltrame’s story recalls the sacrifice of another innocent person who, two millennia ago, willingly surrendered himself to the brutality of insensate evil for the sake of others .

If the West can still produce selfless heroes like Officer Beltrame, there’s reason for hope.

Have a Happy Easter.

How I Made Saint John Paul II Laugh, Twice

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In 1979, I spent a semester at the University of Dallas, Rome campus. A few days after we arrived, five or six of us decided to wander around the city to get our bearings. We wound up in St. Peter’s Square where we saw two parallel lines of barricades running down its center about twenty feet apart. When we asked why, we were told that when John Paul II returned that night from Mexico, he would be driven through the square in an open car. We hustled over to a spot right next to a barricade and began the long vigil.

As we waited, I thumbed  through  a little book of helpful foreign phrases for English speaking travelers. I sat up straight when I realized that some of them were in Polish. What better way to  stand out to a Pole in a crowd of screaming Italians than to yell something in Polish? We carefully studied the  book to choose just the right phrase and practiced it together all afternoon.

The huge crowd became electric when the Pope finally arrived. As his car drove slowly by, our little group shouted out in Polish, in unison, “Where are you going with our luggage?”  His head snapped around, and for a second his eyes flared with the burning indignation that would eventually smelt the Iron Curtain. But, when he saw it was a group of smiling, dumb – probably American – students  desperately trying to attract his attention, he laughed and gave us a blessing .

A couple of months later, we were working our way back to campus from the train station after a 5 day trip through several countries.  We were too broke even for youth hostels, but we did have Eurail passes, so we had slept on the trains.  We were tired, hungry, and didn’t smell great.

As we walked behind the Vatican, we saw several people obviously waiting for something. They told us the Pope was coming back from a dinner in town, and that this road led to his private drive. Just then, a large car drove up and stopped right in front of us. John Paul II popped out of the sunroof and everyone began taking pictures and wishing him a good night.
I threw my suitcase down, knelt beside it, and began frantically searching for my camera. I couldn’t find it. In desperation, I dumped its contents onto the street, but it was no use; it wasn’t in there. Then I noticed that all the cameras had stopped flashing, and that our little group had fallen into an awkward silence.

I looked up and saw that the Pope was patiently waiting for me to find my camera. As I knelt in the gutter, surrounded  by my dirty socks and underwear, I threw my arms out wide and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “That’s life.” And then the Pope, the Occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ threw out his arms wide and shrugged his shoulders as if to agree, “Yeah, that’s life.” He laughed, threw me a quick blessing, got back in the car and was driven away.

I miss him.