St. Charles de Foucauld

Last May Pope Francis canonized St. Charles de Foucauld, a military man and explorer who ended up meeting Christ, leaving behind an erratic life to give himself completely to God.

Pedro Estaún-December 1, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes
Charles de Foucauld

Charles de Foucauld

On September 1, 1858, he was born in Strasbourg into a noble family, Charles-Eugéne de Foucauld. His parents died, one after the other in 1864 and Charles and Marie, his sister, were entrusted to his grandfather, Colonel Morlet, a good but weak man. He studied in Paris at a Jesuit school and began to prepare himself for military school. His interest in studies was very poor. At the age of 16 he lost his faith. Two years later his grandfather died and inherited a large fortune that he began to squander in a disastrous way. He entered the Samur cavalry school in October, where he will leave with the last qualification: number 87 among 87 students. He led a life of revelry and indiscipline full of eccentricities. Nevertheless, he drew well and cultivated himself by reading a lot. In 1879 he took up with Mimi, a young woman of ill repute, and lived with her. Two years later his regiment was sent to Algeria and Charles took Mimi with him, passing her off as his wife. When his superciliousness was discovered, he was demoted and returned to Europe. On the occasion of a revolution in Tunisia, he returned to Africa and for eight months he proved to be an excellent officer but, seduced by the desert, he left the army and settled in Algeria where he began an exploration of those lands not then visited by any European. He took Rabbi Mordecai as his companion, dressed as a Hebrew and traveled clandestinely through Morocco for a year. He tried to marry a young Algerian woman there, but broke off the relationship in the face of her family's categorical opposition. 

He returned to France after two years of absence. He then devoted himself to collecting as much information as possible about Morocco, always in a hidden way for fear of being discovered by the Arabs. Between 1887 and 1888 he published two important works: "The recognition of Morocco" y "The Morocco Itinerary".which receive an enthusiastic critique. He becomes famous as a great explorer for the quality and quantity of information collected and for the precious social observations and customs that he includes in his stories. He receives the gold medal of the "Société Française de Géographie" and is thus placed in a world of honors.

Driven by deep spiritual concerns, in October 1886 Charles entered the Church of St. Augustine in Paris to ask Father Huevélin, whom his cousin Marie Bondy had told him about, for advice. The priest asked him to go to confession and receive communion immediately, then they would talk, and he accepted. He spent the following years at his family's home and had frequent conversations with his confessor. His soul became more and more filled with God and he began to think about becoming a religious. At Christmas 1888, he went to the Holy Land and there he matured his irrevocable decision: to become a monk. He returned to France and decided to become a Trappist. He gave all his possessions to his sister and definitively renounced all human glory.

In January 1890, he left for the Our Lady of the Snows Trappist monastery in France and entered the novitiate under the name of Frater Marie-Albéric. Six months later he left for another much poorer Trappist monastery, that of Akbès, in Syria, a very remote region which at the end of the 19th century could only be reached after several days' journey. There he worked in the garden, doing the most humble jobs until 1896. However, an inner voice called him to an even deeper solitude. Following the advice of Father Hevélin, with whom he would continue to correspond, he made the first project of a religious congregation "in his own way". He was sent to Rome to further his studies and there he asked to be dispensed from his vows. In 1897, the Prior General of the Trappists released him to follow his vocation. 

He leaves again for the Holy Land and begins a life as a hermit in a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth, where he is their servant and errand boy, living in a simple hut near the cloister. He remained there for three years and became a beloved figure in Nazareth for his spirituality and continued charity. The Poor Clares and his confessor urged him to seek ordination to the priesthood. He returned to France to prepare himself and was ordained priest on June 9, 1901. Shortly after, he left again for Algeria, to the oasis of Beni-Abbès to help spiritually a French military detachment. He built a simple hermitage with a chapel. From there he alerted his friends and the French authorities to the drama of slavery. He rescued several slaves, toured the land of the Touaregs, the most solitary region of the interior, learned their language, wrote a catechism for them and began to translate the Gospel, settling in a village at an altitude of 1500 meters where he built a small hut in which he installed a chapel and a simple room. Father Foucauld is now divided between the poor of Beni-Abbès and those of Tamanrasset, 700 km away in the desert. Charles is the only Christian. Since the faithful were not present, he was forbidden to celebrate Mass; he made up for it by making his life a Eucharist. In 1908, exhausted, he fell deathly ill. The Touaregs saved him by sharing with him the little goat's milk they had in that time of drought. Between 1909 and 1913, he made three trips to France to present his project of the "Petis frères" of the Sacred Heart, an association of lay people for the conversion of unbelievers. 

During the world war the desert becomes a dangerous place and he stays in Tamanrasset. To protect the natives from the Germans, he builds a fort. He continues to work on his poetry and Touareg proverbs. On December 1, 1916, bandits seize him and assassinate him. At his death he was alone ... or almost alone. In France there are 49 members of the Association of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which he managed to get approved by the religious authorities. His death was like a seed. In 2002 nineteen different fraternities of lay people, priests, religious men and women, were living the Gospel following the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. On May 15, 2022 Pope Francis canonized him.

The authorPedro Estaún

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