Today, we remember Charles de Foucauld, a fascinating person who was beatified in 2005. At the end of the ceremony, Pope Benedict XVI remarked:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Let us give thanks for the witness borne by Charles de Foucauld. In his contemplative and hidden life in Nazareth, he discovered the truth about the humanity of Jesus and invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation; in this place he learned much about the Lord, whom he wanted to follow with humility and poverty.
He discovered that Jesus, who came to join us in our humanity, invites us to universal brotherhood, which he subsequently lived in the Sahara, and to love, of which Christ gave us the example. As a priest, he placed the Eucharist and the Gospel at the heart of his life, the two tables of the Word and of the Bread, source of Christian life and mission.
My former editor from OSV back in the day, David Scott, wrote an article on Blessed Charles for Godspy, also back in the day. There is not lack of material about Blessed Charles online, but David’s article is a great place to start.
Nazareth had captured his imagination. At Nazareth, Charles marveled, the almighty creator of heaven and earth had lived for more than thirty years, quietly making his home with a mother and father, holding down an ordinary job, answering to a common name, Jesus.
Charles was fascinated by what Catholic tradition has long called “the hidden life” of Jesus—those thirty years or so between his birth and the start of his public ministry, about which the gospels say only that he lived with Mary and Joseph and worked as a carpenter.
For Charles the “ordinariness” of Jesus’ hidden life was a divine sign of the way we are to live our lives. We are to live on earth as God himself lived on earth—content with few possessions, with no dreams of fame or fortune; doing our daily work out of love for God and loving kindness towards others.
If there was a certain holy abandon, even a wildness to his appearance, Charles was nonetheless a missionary from the old school. He believed in the French colonial project of bringing “civilization” to Africa, and the Christian mission of preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth.
He was a frequent critic of the greed and mixed motives in the French occupation, complaining once: “If these unfortunate Muslims know no priest, see as self-styled Christians only unjust and tyrannical speculators giving an example of vice, how can they be converted? How can they but hate our holy religion?”
Charles didn’t proselytize as such. His mission, he once explained, was to be a good friend and a good example: “I must make people say this when they see me: ‘This man is so good that his religion must be good.'”
And he saw himself as the advance guard of what he envisioned as a missionary movement of priests, brothers, nuns, and lay people. He had no illusions of Muslim mass-conversions, but he did believe that genuine Christian love and virtue, expressed in friendship and charity, would bring “conversions, at the end of 25, 50, or 100 years, as fruit ripens.”
“I do not think there is a gospel phrase which has made a deeper impression on me and transformed my life more than this one: ‘Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ One has only to think that these words were spoken by the uncreated Truth, who also said, ‘This is my body . . . this is my blood . . .’ to be kindled into searching for Jesus and loving him in ‘the least of these brothers of mine,’ these sinners, these poor people.”His deep love and respect for the Muslims was matched by his heart for the poor. Like so many saints and spiritual masters before him, he came to see a profound connection between Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and his presence in the poor and oppressed:
He helped farmers find ways to irrigate their crops in the desert; he fed the hungry, and helped the sick. Most controversially, he began buying the freedom of slaves from their Muslim captors.
France had abolished the flourishing Muslim practice of slavery upon establishing colonial rule in Algeria. But slavery continued, with colonial officials turning a blind eye for fear of a backlash from volatile tribal chiefs and other major slave holders.
Charles wrote indignant letters to Church authorities, demanding that they denounce “the monstrous injustice,” and expressing outrage that “the representatives of Jesus are happy to defend ‘with a whisper in the ear’ and not ‘with a shout from the rooftops’ the cause which is that of justice and charity.”
He purchased the freedom of numerous slaves, including one who became his personal aide and, fourteen years later, an eyewitness to his death.
Next December 1 will mark the centenary of Blessed Charles’ death. I ran across this Facebook post highlighting a commemoration of the beginning of this centenary year that occurred in Damascus yesterday.
De Foucauld’s life and witness is sometimes misrepresented as an argument against conversion as a goal of mission. Studying what he actually said and did reveals this characterization to be just that – a misrepresentation. Charles de Foucauld certainly took the long view. He saw his presence as a witness to Christ by virtue of simply living in friendship, community and love, but he was not indifferent on the question of conversion. He hoped and prayed for it, and saw his way of life as sowing seeds that others might harvest decades hence in a challenging landscape.
Men before Charles de Foucauld’s tomb, Algeria, ca.1920-1940
Oh, and here’s a nice deep rabbit hole for you – the International Missionary Photography Archive at USC. Link goes to “Catholic” as a search term. 8549 results. You’re welcome. Or not.