The Prophetic Apostolate of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Hermit of Sahara

One century after his death as a martyr, the priest who brought the Gospel to Islamic lands and lived among the Tuareg people in the Algerian desert will be proclaimed a saint.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld. (photo: Shutterstock.)

Blessed Charles de Foucauld will soon be canonized. A little more than a century after his death, a miracle attributed to his intercession was officially approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in a decree signed by Pope Francis on May 27.

Beatified by Benedict XVI in 2005, Blessed Charles is mostly known for having lived as a hermit among the Tuareg people in the Sahara, decades before the emergence of interfaith dialogue with the 1961 declaration Nostra Aetate.

His missionary zeal cost him his life. On Dec. 1, 1916, the one that we recall as Brother Charles of Jesus was assassinated by an armed tribal group connected with the Senussi Bedouins who had encircled his hermitage of Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria.

While World War I overshadowed the news of his death, he remains on the face of history one of the most important religious figures of his time, at the doorway between centuries. He was remembered by Dominican theologian Yves Congar, together with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as one of the two “beacons lit by God on the threshold of the atomic century.”


Miraculous Power of Prayer

The celebration of the first centenary of his birth in heaven, in 2016, showed the magnitude of his spiritual influence on the Catholic world, as prayers in favor of his canonization started to multiply worldwide — almost 100 years after his cause of beatification was open, in 1926. Chains of novenas were being followed by thousands of faithful when a miracle attributed to his intercession happened, a few days before Dec. 1, 2016.

A French carpenter named Charle, who was working on the restoration of an old Catholic chapel in Saumur (western France, next to the cavalry school where Blessed Charles once studied), fell 53 feet to the floor and impaled himself on a bench leg. The CEO of the renovation company, a practicing Catholic, was advised by a local parish priest to pray for the intercession of Foucauld, asking him to save Charle. In a few hours, a prayer chain involving the whole diocese was launched for the carpenter.

While the doctors said that the violence of the impact should have made Charle’s organs explode, the latter not only survived the accident, but was up and walking six days later.

“I saw the strength of communion of prayer, and I understood that if some causes of canonization stagnate, it is because we don’t pray enough,” Father Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences and postulator of Blessed Charles’ cause of canonization, told the Register, recalling that prayer makes God answer by granting miracles through the intercession of saints.

To this day, dozens of congregations, institutes of consecrated life, communities, associations and lay faithful claim to adhere to his spirituality. And the devotion aroused by his testimony of life is still growing within the Catholic world.

“All these people are trying to live according to the message of brother Charles and radiate the Gospel, especially in poor areas that are far from the Church,” Pierre Sourisseau, archivist of Foucauld’s cause of canonization and author of the most comprehensive biography available about the Trappist priest, told the Register. “Countless Christians venerate him and rejoice at his upcoming canonization, and one of the proofs of that is the large diffusion of his prayer of abandonment, faithfully and universally said, especially by those who accompany the dying and the sick.”



A Life Between Shadows and Light

Just like a St. Augustine of modern times, Foucauld had a bumpy path of faith. Born in Strasbourg (northeastern France) in 1858, he became an orphan at 6 years old and was raised by his grandparents. Although he received a Catholic education, he lost his faith in his teens and got interested in  pagan and atheist thinkers. He chose to embrace a military career and entered the prestigious Saint-Cyr Military Academy. During his years as an officer, his life was that of an undisciplined hedonist, divided between a compulsive search for pleasure of the senses and a quest for meaningfulness.

The turning point occurred when he left the army to go on expeditions in Maghreb countries (northwest Africa). There, the vibrant faith he saw among the Muslim communities put the question of transcendence back at the center of his life.

It was then, in Paris, beside his beloved cousin Marie de Bondy — in whom he saw the face of holiness — that he slowly reembraced the Catholic faith of his childhood during the summer of 1886. The reading of Elevations sur les Mystères by great Catholic theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet intensified his new inclination towards virtue, which could be further rooted thanks to his encounter with Father Henri Huvelin, curate of the famous Parisian Church of St. Augustin, who gave him religious classes and became his spiritual director.

This slow and deep intellectual path was decisive in Charles’ vocation, which matured throughout several years of contemplative research, especially in Nazareth, in the Holy Land, but also with the Trappists of France and Syria, until his ordination in 1901.

“He had a complicated life, made of shadows and light, and his canonization makes us rediscover what has been at the heart of the life of this saint, what gave meaning to his life and from where he drew the faith and charity that drove him,” Father Ardura said.


School of Nazareth

According to Father Ardura, one of the most important aspects of his spirituality is the fact that he wanted to imitate Jesus’ life in Nazareth, to live according to the spirit of the Holy Family, that is, with a spirit of submission to God, humility and poverty. Such a spiritual approach was echoed by Pope St. Paul VI’s homily during his trip to the Holy Land in 1964, when he said that “Nazareth is the school in which we begin to understand the life of Jesus,” where “we learn almost imperceptibly to imitate him.”

While highlighting, in turn, this very pronounced attachment of Foucauld to Christ’s life in Nazareth as a key element to understand his spirituality, Sourisseau mentioned two other pillars that “strongly transpire from his meditations and correspondence”; that is, the major role given to the Eucharistic celebration and Real Presence (he was himself deprived of the possibility to celebrate Mass for a long period of time in the desert), as well as the Christian presence and the testimony of the Gospel among populations ignorant of the Catholic faith.

“He claims loud and clear the meaning of the greatness and absoluteness of God; he makes concrete the mysteries of salvation in Jesus Christ and that of love, a received gift to be transmitted,” Sourisseau said, highlighting how much his thought can help address the great issues of our time. “From the sense of universal brotherhood and therefore dialogue for peace and resolution conflict, the preference for the poor and underprivileged, the promotion of people according to what will be further formulated in Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, are all aspects that chart a course to respond to today’s stakes.”


Coherence of Life

His biographers have said that Blessed Charles spared no effort in his time to reach people far away from the Church and didn’t hesitate to put his great erudition at the service of his faith and the announcement of the Good News.

Among the Tuareg people in Tamanrasset, in the region of Hoggar, the one that local inhabitants called “the Christian Marabout” initiated soon after his arrival the translation of the Gospel in Tuareg language and published the first bilingual Tuareg-French dictionary. He also reproduced thousands of lines of Tuareg poetry about their ancestral habits. These research works have still-unequalled scientific value today.  

“Charles de Foucauld is a man who is taken seriously because he lived, in his everyday life, the very content of his faith,” Father Ardura said, adding that “his whole life opens us to the meaning of universal brotherhood.”

“There has always been a great coherence between what he believed, professed and what he lived, and we definitely need these kinds of testimonies of the Gospel nowadays.”


A New Approach to Evangelization

But as his testimony took place in the conflict-torn context of French colonization of Algeria, the temptation is great for his detractors to reduce him to a white colonizer. And the fact that the latter was also a former cavalry officer is often used to make him a kind of apostle of colonization. However, the reading of his writings, correspondence and the testimonies of those who knew him show a different reality.

According to biographer Sourisseau, his military-trained values gave him an “eminent sense of dedication, not at the service of violence, but that of order and life in society.”

In addition to becoming notorious for his active fight against slavery in Beni Abbes (near the Moroccan border), where he spent three years before reaching the region of Hoggar, he worked tirelessly in favor of the common good, according to what seemed to be the greatest priorities for local populations.

“Struck by physical and moral misery of the populations he integrated into, he promoted settled ways of life over nomadism, work over rezzous [raids to pillage] and an organization of society through law, which are all aspects that are quite strange to colonialist ideology,” Sourisseau said, adding that the region of the Tuareg people was geographically and politically very distant from the three French departments of Northern Algeria.

In the same way, Foucauld’s dialogue with Muslims was never invasive, nor naïve. Aware of the limits of traditional evangelization with Tuareg people, whose faith was deeply rooted, he developed an original apostolate based on personal relationship. “He starts with friendship and exchange, according to the personal path of each of his interlocutors, showing charity without proselytism,” Sourisseau said.

In a letter to the then-apostolic prefect of Sahara, Msgr. Charles Guérin, the famous hermit defined his anthropological ecclesiology by saying that he had not to “preach Jesus but to prepare his predication,” by radiating the beauty of Christianity through his work and goodness. Blessed Charles lived his life following the steps of Christ with this intention: “Loving God, loving people is my whole life; may it always be my whole life. This is what I hope for.” 

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Europe correspondent. She writes from Rome.