By Marie Meaney, March 29, 2018
Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame (44) has become famous overnight. His family could well have done without his fame, since it came at such a cost—the sacrifice of his own life. He offered himself as a hostage in exchange for a wife and mother who was held captive by the terrorist Radouane Lakdim. Lakdim had taken over a supermarket in Trèbes, close to Carcassonne in southern France, threatening to blow up the store along with many hostages. Beltrame, a member of the French military police called the “Gendarmerie,” began negotiations with the attacker, drawing his attention away from the other Gendarmes who evacuated people from the building. He then took the unusual step of offering himself in exchange for the remaining hostage.
Beltrame was not just a heroic soldier. He was also a practicing Catholic, a convert who was close to the Abbey of St. Marie de Lagrasse, where he and his fiancée Marielle Vandenbunder (40 years old and a vet at a local zoo) were preparing for their wedding on June 9. Père Jean-Baptiste from the abbey (a regular canon of the Mother of God community founded in the 1970s that took over the abbey in 2004) came to give Beltrame last rites and the Apostolic pardon (a plenary indulgence) at the hospital on the evening of March 23. He died the next morning. Because of this priest’s public statement, we know something about the officer’s background and spiritual journey.
Arnaud Beltrame had come from a non-practicing Catholic family. He met Father Jean-Baptiste when the officer was visiting the abbey together with Marielle whom he married civilly in August 2016. (Because of the strong separation of church and state in France, the civil marriage, contracted in a city hall, must precede the religious one.) They asked him to prepare them for their religious wedding. Apparently, Beltrame had converted in 2007, went through the catechumenate for 2 years before receiving his First Communion and Confirmation in 2009. In 2015 he went on a pilgrimage to St. Anne d’Auray, where he asked the Blessed Mother to find him a spouse. The following Easter, Marielle, herself a faithful Catholic, and Arnaud were betrothed at the abbey of Timadeuc in Brittany. Recently he went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Beltrame had a successful career. In 2003, he was selected for the GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), which is the elite tactical unit of the Gendarmerie that responds to terrorist attacks, hostage taking, and threats to national security. The Gendarmerie is made up of soldiers working as police, but operate under the authority of the minister of the interior. In 2005, Beltrame had been deployed on a mission to Iraq, where he received the order of military valor; then he joined the security team at the Elysée presidential palace. In 2012, he became knight of the prestigious légion d’honneur. He held a few other posts before he became deputy commander of the Gendarmes in the department of the Aude, which borders on the Mediterranean ocean.
We do not know yet exactly what happened in the supermarket during those 2½ hours that the officer was inside. Beltrame left his smartphone on so that his fellow Gendarmes could follow his actions. After shots rang out, the soldiers decided to storm the building, killing Lakdim whose connection to ISIS has been confirmed. Beltrame had been shot and suffered mortal knife wounds to his throat.
Pere Dominique Arz, the national chaplain of the Gendarmerie, spoke about the fact that Beltrame radiated his faith and that his gift of self was an expression of his belief. “He went all the way in his service for his fatherland and in his witness to the faith.” Instances of self-sacrifice inspired by religious faith will invariably arise in the face of Islamic terrorism. Europeans are now experiencing, but to a lesser degree, the martyrdom that Christians in the Middle East have suffered for many years.
The ideology of Islamic jihad is so appealing because it has the trappings of religion. Nothing is as dangerous as an idol-like force taking on a religious disguise, fooling its adherents into believing their terrorist acts are pleasing to God when they contradict his very nature. A spiritual problem needs a spiritual solution. That’s why a merely secular remedy won’t work, since it does not address the transcendent needs of human beings. Yes, the appeal to basic human rights is important, but it is not a sufficient response to the way in which Islam understands God as a tyrant, the relationship between the sexes as one of subjection, and therefore all human relations as based on power dynamics. Only the lived witness of a God who loves human beings as his children can overcome the fanaticism of a heartless ideologue.
This does not exclude the use of military means to defend against terror attacks, but it does show that personal sacrifice is an element of military valor. Colonel Beltrame embodied this virtue. He showed the courage of a soldier, but went above and beyond his duty by risking his life on behalf of others as St. Maximilian Kolbe had done. He will not be forgotten as this clash of visions unfolds more and more in the West. Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed in 2016 by two Muslims while celebrating Mass, helped to symbolize in religious terms the conflict now taking place within and beyond France. Next to an innocent clergyman now stands a faithful soldier whose heroic actions contrast starkly with the cowardly methods of violent extremists.
Marie Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She is the author of Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Classic Greek Texts (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her booklet Embracing the Cross of Infertility (HLI) has also appeared in Spanish, German, Hungarian and Croatian. Before the birth of her daughter, she was a teaching fellow at Villanova University.