1.1 CHARLES DE FOUCAULD: 1858 – 1916
- Born Sept. 15, 1858 in Strasbourg into an aristocratic family with its motto «Never to yield». Baptized at the time of his birth.
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH : 1858-1876
“I, who was surrounded with so many graces, from my early childhood, the son of a saintly mother…”
- Charles had one sister, Marie, three years younger than him.
- Both his parents died, one after the other, in 1864 leaving Charles emotionally scarred by that experience
- The orphans were put under the care of their maternal grandfather, Colonel de Morlet, a good but weak minded man.
- After the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, France lost Alsace-Lorraine (including Strasbourg) to Germany. The family moved to Nancy and kept their French nationality.
- He attended secondary school in Nancy, then in Paris with the Jesuits where he obtained his baccalaureate and began preparing for military school. By his own account, he lost his faith at age 16 on finishing high school.
MILITARY LIFE: 1876-1881
“I was straying further and further away from you, Lord. All faith had disappeared from my life.”
Retreat, November 1897
- 1876: he entered Saint- Cyr Military Academy. He was dismissed before the end of the year on the grounds of laziness and undisciplined behavior .
- 1878: His grandfather died in February, leaving him heir to a considerable fortune which he squandered. He entered the Saumur Cavalry School in October, and graduated the last – 87th out of a class of 87 – in 1879.
- At military school he lived a life of pleasure and his acts of indiscipline and eccentricity increased (once on sentry duty he left his post, as a prank, to disguise himself as a beggar). However he began to draw and sketch and educate himself by reading
- 1879: While stationed in Pont-à-Mousson, his behavior became profligate and associated himself with a young woman of dubious repute called Mimi..
- 1880: His regiment was sent to Algeria. He took Mimi with him pretending she was his wife. When that deception was discovered, the Army summoned him for another commission. Charles refused and preferred to be dismissed for “lack of discipline and notorious misconduct”. He then returned to France to live in Evian.
- 1881: Hearing that his regiment was involved in dangerous action in Tunisia, he asked to be reinstated, left Mimi and joined a new regiment in the South Oran area.
- For the next 8 months, he proved to be an excellent officer, praised by his superiors and troops under his command.
JOURNEYS OF EXPLORATION: 1882-1886.
“The encounter with Islam caused a profound upheaval within me…”
Letter: Aug. 7, 1901
- 1882: Fascinated by North Africa, he requested discharge from the French Army and settled in Algiers to prepare a scientific expedition to Morocco. He learned to speak Arabic and Hebrew.
- June 1883 – May 1884: Disguised as a Jewish Rabbi and accompanied by another Rabbi Mardochée, he traveled clandestinely throughout Morocco. He risked his life several times on the expedition but was deeply impressed by the faith and prayer life of Muslims.
- 1884: Charles got engaged to marry in Algeria, but broke off the engagement as his family was opposed to the marriage.
- 1885: He received a prestigious gold medal from the French Geographic Society for the report on his Moroccan expedition.
- 1885-1886: He traveled to Oases in Southern Algeria and Tunisia.
- 1886: He returned to France and rebuilt relations with his own family in particular with his cousin Marie de Bondy.
- He published “An Exploration of Morocco”.
- He began to live a more sober and austere life.
- He questioned himself on his inner life and spirituality.
- Despite having no faith, he used to visit churches and repeated this strange prayer: “God, if you exist, make yourself known to me”.
CONVERSION : 1886-1889
“As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live only for Him…”
August 14 ,1901
- Late October 1886: he went to the Saint Augustin Church in Paris to ask for religious instruction from Father Huvelin, whose name had been mentioned to him by Marie de Bondy.
- Father Huvelin told him to immediately make his Confession, and he received Communion.
- 1887-1888: He lived with his family at the home of his sister Marie in the Provinces and began to think about entering religious life.
- Dec. 1888 – Jan. 1889: Charles visited the Holy Land where Nazareth made a very strong impression on him.
- On his return to France, he gave all his possessions to his sister and made retreats in the search of a religious order he might join.
- He felt called to live “the hidden life of the poor and humble worker of Nazareth”.
- The Trappist order seemed the most suitable to his vocation.
RELIGIOUS LIFE: 1890- 1897
“My religious vocation dates from the same moment as my faith: God is so great…”
Letter: Aug. 14, 1901
- 1890 (Jan 15): He entered the Trappist monastery of Notre-Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows) in France with the hope of joining a much poorer Trappist monastery in Akbes, Syria. He was in fact sent to Akbes six months later.
- He drafted an initial rule for a religious order “according to his ideas”. He wrote: “I long for Nazareth”.
- He requested to be dispensed from his vows. In October 1896 he was sent to Rome for further studies.
- January, 1897: the Abbot General of the Trappists granted him freedom to follow his own vocation.
“In order to be even more like Jesus…”
Letter: Aug. 14, 1901
“By the very fact of celebrating Mass, I will pay God the greatest tribute, and do most good to humanity.
Letter: April 26, 1900
- In March 1897, he began to live in Nazareth where he worked as a house worker for the Poor Clare Sisters and lived in a hut near their cloister.
- “I obtained permission to go to Nazareth alone, and live there unknown as a laborer doing everyday work: solitude, prayer, adoration, meditation of the Gospel, humble work.”
- He remained there for a little over 3 years. Little by little, the Poor Clares and his confessor, Father Huvelin, encouraged him to request ordination to the priesthood.
- He returned to France to Notre-Dame des Neiges Monastery to make final preparations.
- June 9th 1901: He was ordained a priest in Viviers (Ardeche France).
BENI-ABBES AND VISITS TO THE TUAREGS: 1901-1906
“To lead in the Sahara the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth, not in order to preach, but to live in solitude, the poverty and the humble work of Jesus ”
- September 1901, Charles de Foucauld returned to Algeria. He settled in Beni-Abbes where he built a hermitage with the objective of founding a monastic fraternity which he called the “Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
- 1902: He drew the attention of friends and the authorities to the evils of slavery
- He secured the freedom of several slaves through paying their ransom.
- 1904 and 1905: He made several trips to the Tuaregs in the Sahara. In 1905 he moved to Tamanrasset in their territory.
- He learned their language.
- No priest had gone into their territory before.
- He began to translate the Gospel into the Tuareg language.
- 1906: At last, a companion joined him but Brother Michael soon fell ill, and returned to France.
TAMANRASSET – 3 TRIPS TO FRANCE: 1907-1916
“My apostolate must be the apostolate of goodness. In seeing me, people should be able to say to one another, “Since this man is so good, his religion must be good.”
- July 1907: Charles undertook a major scientific task of translating the Tuareg language by working on their songs and poetry and getting help from local inhabitants.
- He was the only Christian, and so was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. But he chose to remain for the sake of the people. After 6 months he got permission to celebrate alone, but not to reserve the Blessed Sacrament.
- January1908: Exhausted during a major drought, he fell seriously ill and barely escaped death. The Tuareg assisted him by sharing small amounts of goat’s milk with him. Charles was so helpless that he depended upon his neighbors. He came to realize that friendship and fraternal love has to work through exchange and reciprocity.
- 1909-1911-1913: He made three trips to France to present his plans for a “Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart”, an association for the conversion of unbelievers. “Fervent Christians from all walks of life are able to make known through their example, what the Christian religion is, and to “demonstrate” the Gospel in their lives” (Rules and Counsels, 1910-1913).
- 1914: the war broke out in Europe. Charles de Foucauld remained in Tamanrasset on the advice of General Laperrine who was one of his friends.
- 1915 : A time of unrest in the Sahara desert: Raids by Moroccans and Senoussites from Libya threatened the area.
THE FINAL YEAR HIS DEATH: 1916
“Our self-abasement is the most powerful means that we have to unite us to Jesus and do good to souls.”
Letter to Marie de Bondy: Dec.1, 1916.
“If the grain of wheat that has fallen into the ground does not die, it remains alone. 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”
To Suzanne Perret
- To protect the local people, Charles de Foucauld built a small fortress in Tamanrasset. He moved in there on his own, prepared to receive the people from the surrounding area in case of danger.
- He continued to work on Tuareg poetry and proverbs.
- Dec 1, 1916: Some Tuaregs under Senoussite influence, lured him outside the fortress, took hold of him, and bound him up.
- During the looting, there was an warning that French soldiers were unexpectedly coming. There was panic. A shot was fired. Charles was killed. His body was buried in a ditch that surrounded the fort.
- At the time of his death, Charles de Foucauld was alone, or almost. In France, 49 people had joined the Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which had succeeded in getting its approval from the religious authorities.
- Today, 19 different groups of lay people, priests, religious brothers and sisters live the Gospel throughout the world following the intuitions and carisma of Charles de Foucauld.
1.2 Charles de Foucauld, Man of his Times and Prophet for Today
There is a striking contrast between the exceptional destiny of this man, so deeply marked by his origins, his own times, his background and that of his eventual out-of- the-ordinary experiences, and the universality of his spiritual message that today guides the lives of so many people around the world.
1.2.1 Charles de Foucauld, a Man of his Times
It is necessary to situate Charles de Foucauld in his origins (an aristocrat from his father´s side, a wealthy bourgeois from his mother), his military background, a special period of the French Republic (“Revenge” after the humiliating 1871 defeat by Prussia, anti-clericalism and “persecutions” against the Church), his own personal story from overcoming the emotional wounds provoked by the early death of his parents to the exploration of Morocco which, aside from the feat itself, revealed a seeker who would dedicate the last tens years of his life in an important scientific undertaking aimed at a better understanding of Tuareg culture.
1.2.2 The Message of Charles de Foucauld: “Let us return to the Gospel”
Following the the way of the great saints who, like Francis of Assisi, are raised up by God to recall Christian people to the demands of the Gospel, Charles de Foucauld restated the most essential: “Let us return to the Gospel. If we do not return to the Gospel, Jesus will not live in us.” To return to the Gospel is to allow Jesus of Nazareth live in us through a life of poverty of spirit and of availability to all by putting ourselves in the last place, and committing ourselves to humanity. Brother Charles, filled as he was with the passionate love of Christ. was wholeheartedly committed to the Gospel. It is from that source that we, members of his Family but many others with us, draw strength and inspiration.
1.2.3 Charles de Foucauld, a Prophet for Today
Besides this basic element of Christian living, which is the return to the Gospel, there are others aspects by which Charles de Foucauld illuminates our way in a Church concerned about responding to the needs of the contemporary world.
1. Charles de Foucauld was man in spiritual search
– He spent a third of his life as an unbeliever and is close to all, especially young people, who are searching for a direction to their lives.
– He searched all his life but with only one focus: to imitate the life of Jesus at Nazareth. He knew how to discern the will of God in events. In a world that so quickly changes, he can help us to keep up with these changes so as to answer the needs of our sisters and brothers.
Being present to God and present to men and women. To make that connection is essential in our lives. Presence to God: Charles de Foucauld was to remain a monk while becoming closer and closer to people. At Tamanrasset he was most approachable, accessible and so little. Presence to men and women: In the simple relationship of friendship but also in solidarity with those who are victims of injustice ( his struggle against slavery ). He approached the Tuareg people with great respect, trying to get to know them better through the rigor of a scientific approach, so as to make their culture better appreciated and wider known.
3. Concern for those “farthest away”
Sharing his faith in Jesus the Savior, he came to accept the perspective of priesthood. And once a priest, he wanted to dedicate himself to the most neglected, firstly, the inhabitants of Morocco but when he could not go there, the people of the oasis, and finally, the Tuareg. He would consecrate the last years of his life to this people although he felt prepared to announce the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
4. To build a universal Fraternity
of the the poor and put them in the center of society and of the Church.
5. To live the Church as the People of God
Not the pyramidal society of the Church, but the Church, the People of God, in whose service certain people carry out a ministry.
“Charles de Foucauld from very early on, had this conviction on the common vocation of the baptized. In his proposed congregation, no distinction was made between priests and lay brothers and sisters; the Association was to welcome all — laymen, religious, and priests. In this way he wished to call lay men and women as collaborators in his mission as were called Priscilla and Aquila by St. Paul in the early Church (Acts 18,1-4 ; 18, 19-26)”.
Father Henri LE MASNE,
Member of the Priest and Lay Fraternities
– What do I discover from reflecting on the life of Charles de Foucauld?
– What can I learn that applies to my own life, my own relationship to God and to others?
– How does the life and the message of Brother Charles help me to follow Jesus?
– What is the message for me? How can I try to practice it in my daily life?