by Fr. Vic Kevin Ferrer
Pope Francis wants us to be inspired by this soon-to-be saint who after losing his Catholic faith as a youth rediscovered it through the piety of people with other religions.
Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti (All are Brothers and Sisters), just like Laudato Si, takes its inspiration once more from the poverello of Assissi, the Pope’s namesake St. Francis. After speaking at length about the call to universal brotherhood and friendship, Pope Francis concluded his encyclical by saying that he was also inspired by other great people, even some who are not catholics. They are Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi. Everyone knows these three great men but then the special mention was given by the pope to a person with a rather obscure name- Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
“In these pages of reflection on universal fraternity, I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more. Yet I would like to conclude by mentioning another person of deep faith who, drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all. I am speaking of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.” (FT 286)
So who is Charles de Foucauld?
(You must be wondering how to pronounce that name. So before anything else, it’s Charles ‘de foo-koh’.)
Charles Eugene de Foucauld was born on September 15, 1858 in Strasbourg, France. His family was part of French nobility and he even held the title Viscount of Foucauld. At an early age, he was educated in the Catholic faith by his mother who was deeply religious. When he was six years old he became an orphan after the death of both his mother, who died due to miscarriage, and his father shortly after. Together with his little sister who was three years old, he was taken by their wealthy maternal grandparents.
Growing up, Charles read a lot of books and desired to become a soldier like his grandfather. Little by little as a teenager, however, he lost his faith in God and distanced himself from the Church. In high school, he was lazy and unruly. He himself later on wrote, “At 17 I was totally selfish, full of vanity and irreverence, engulfed by a desire for what is evil. I was running wild.”
He entered military school and finished at the bottom of his class. Charles was twenty years old when his grandfather died leaving him with an inheritance of a vast fortune. Like the prodigal son, he squandered his grandfather’s wealth living an extravagant life. When, in 1880, his regiment was posted in Algeria he took with him his girlfriend who was known to be a woman of ill-repute. He was dismissed from duty because he refused to leave behind his girlfriend. He was able to rejoin the army stationed in Tunisia on the following year after breaking up with the woman. This time he even excelled in his duty.
Fascinated by the landscape and the people of North Africa, Charles resigned from the army and decided to settle in Algiers to become an explorer. He was primarily interested in exlploring Morocco which by that time was off-limits to Europeans and therefore practically unknown in Europe. He studied the language and culture, and disguising himself as a Jew, went on a dangerous exploration of Morocco which he did for almost a year.
What impressed him so much, it turns out, was the faith and devotion of Muslims. It awakened in him a deep longing for the transcendent that he began repeating to himself, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”
Returning to France, he published his notes on his exploration of Morocco and received critical acclaim from the Geographical Society. He continued searching for God encouraged by his deeply Christian family. A strong interior movement of grace was present in his heart pushing him toward God. Charles recounts: “Even though I wasn’t a believer I started going to Church. It was the only place where I felt at ease and I would spend long hours there repeating this strange prayer: ‘My God, if you exist, let me come to know you!’”
Finally making up his mind, in 1886, he sought guidance from a priest and rediscovered God.
“Oh! My God, how much your hand was upon me and yet how little I was aware of it! How good you are! How good you are! How you protected me! How you covered me with your wings when I did not even believe in your existence!”
He was told to make a confession and receive Holy Communion which he did.
"As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live only for him..."
With a renewed desire for God, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and there discovered his vocation: to follow Jesus in his life at Nazareth as “an unknown poor workman lost in abjection.” On his return to France he gave all his possessions to his sister and entered a Trappist monastery. He spent seven years as a monk, first in France and later in Syria. But monastic life did not satisfy him. Charles wanted “to be even more like Jesus.”
He began planning a new religious congregation who will live the life of Jesus in Nazareth. He asked to be dispensed from the Trappist order and it was granted to him in 1897 allowing him to pursue his deeper calling. Charles went to Nazareth and there he lived in a small hut near a Poor Clares monastery where he worked as a servant. He was living a life of prayer and adoration all the while writing the rules of the congregation of the ‘Little Brothers’ which he so wanted to establish.
In 1900, Charles returned to France and, urged by his spiritual director and the nuns he served, sought to be ordained a priest. At 43 years old he was ordained a priest and went to the Sahara realizing that the Nazareth of Jesus could be anywhere.
Charles arrived in a little town near Algiers called Beni Abbes in 1901 where he, with the help of French soldiers, built a simple house and a chapel. It was clear to him that what he really wanted was to live out the hidden life of Jesus, not in order to preach but “to live in solitude, poverty and the humble work of Jesus.”
“I want all the inhabitants to get used to looking on me as their brother, the universal brother…”
In 1905, he moved to a new location at Tamanrasset to be with the Tuareg people, a semi-nomadic ethnic group who are Muslims. He was the only Christian there and was not allowed to celebrate Mass. He diligently studied their language and culture, at the same time building bridges of trust and friendship.
“My apostolate must be the apostolate of goodness. If someone were to ask why I am gentle and good, I must say, ‘If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?’” This would later be known as evangelism of presence. By the way he lived and related with his neighbors, he was able to proclaim his Master and the Gospel of love.
Six months after his arrival in Tamanrasset he was finally allowed to say Mass privately. After spending 15 years in the desert, a war broke out and so he built a fortress to protect the people in his area. On December 1, 1916 Tuareg rebels looted his house and violently killed him. He was 58 years old.
In one of the letters he sent days before his death, Charles said "If the grain of wheat that has fallen into the ground does not die, it remains a single grain. If it dies, it bears much fruit. I have not died, and so I remain alone... Pray for my conversion so that in dying I may bear fruit."
For most people, the death of Charles de Foucauld may seem sad and tragic. He was not able to convert a single person and no one came to join his congregation. In the Rule of Life he wrote for the followers he never saw coming he said, “The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives, should cry the Gospel from the rooftops...not by our words but by our lives.” To this he remained faithful until the end. He cried the Gospel even in his death.
“Blessed Charles directed his ideal of total surrender to God towards an identification with the poor, abandoned in the depths of the African desert. In that setting, he expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being, and asked a friend to “pray to God that I truly be the brother of all.” He wanted to be, in the end, “the universal brother”. Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen.” (FT 287)
Years later in 1933, the first group of men came to the Sahara to follow the life and witness of Charles de Foucauld. They are now the Little Brothers of Jesus. Many other groups and associations would soon be established around the world becoming what is known today as the “Spiritual Family of Charles de Foucauld.”
Together with the opening image of Francis of Assisi, a closing image of Charles de Foucauld encloses the entire content of Pope Francis' latest encyclical "Fratelli Tutti" in an embrace full of hope.
In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree recognizing Charles de Foucauld’s martyrdom therefore paving the way for his beatification on November 13 that same year. Last May 2020 Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to his intercession and his canonization has been approved. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the liturgical ceremony of canonization to a date that is yet to be announced.