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Charles de Foucauld 

The Prophet of Universal Fraternity


Beatified in Rome at the Basilica of St Peter on Sunday, November 13, 2005



Fr. Lorenzo Carraro

Comboni Missionary

A non-believing officer in the Foreign Legion, Charles de Foucauld came to faith through the touching signs of faith of the Muslims he came to know when serving in North Africa. This was the beginning of a journey of silence and prayer, inspired by the humility of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus' example of universal brotherhood transformed the newly blessed Brother Charles of Jesus into a prophet of the mission in the Third Millennium.

It happened on Friday, December 1, 1916, on a beautiful evening in Tamanrasset, in the desert of Algeria. Brother Charles was alone, waiting for the mail. Forty men silently approached the hermitage. Brother Charles opened the door. He was immediately seized, thrown to the ground and his hands tied behind his back. A 15-year-old boy was set to guard him. Suddenly there was a cry, a commotion. The boy panicked, turned his gun on his prisoner and fired. Brother Charles sank to the ground, killed instantly. That bullet put an end to the unusual, extraordinary life of a missionary and a prophet of our modern time, with an acute sensitivity that made him an original interpreter of the Gospel for the mission of the Third Millennium.

Charles de Foucauld had the very rare experience of having been brought back to God by the influence of a non-Christian religion. When he was an officer in the Foreign Legion, far from God, he came in touch with the Muslim population of Northern Africa. He wrote: "Islam has disturbed and touched me deeply. The sight of that faith, of those souls who live continuously in the presence of God, made me intuit something greater and truer than what people are usually interested in... I have started studying Islam and then the Bible."

Touched by Islam

Islam revealed to him the greatness of God (Allah Akbar). He was then caught up by the humility of God in the Incarnation: God wanting to become small: the humble existence of Jesus, the Son of God, as an obscure worker at Nazareth. This experience gave him a deep sense of optimism in the ultimate fate of every soul.

In the last years of his life, from his solitary outpost among the Tuareg tribe, he wrote to a Protestant friend: "I am certain that the good God will welcome into heaven those who have been good and honest, without the need for them to be Roman Catholic. You are a Protestant, others are unbelievers and the Tuareg are Muslim. I am convinced that God will receive us all, if we deserve it."

He did not envision preaching the Gospel in words as such, but by crying it out through the witness of his whole life; a life lived in shared friendship, silence and prayer. He wanted to go beyond all the boundaries of religion and race and to become known as the little brother of Jesus.

It was in this way that his desire to welcome all those who knocked at his door quickly transformed his hermitage into a beehive from dawn to dusk. And he soon wrote: "I want everybody - Christians, Moslems, Jews - to get used to seeing me as their brother, a universal brother. They are already beginning to call my house 'the fraternity', and I like that."

Charles de Foucauld, as a lone ranger, had no follower during his lifetime. Amazingly, at present, his disciples make up eleven religious congregations and eight lay movements all over the world.

A discrete goodness

The movement born of de Foucald is part of a definite current within Catholicism, which emphasizes Christ's incarnation and humanity and includes Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis de Sales.

Nazareth has become a key word for Charles and his disciples. It means sharing the life of men and women and like the Son of God, leading an ordinary, everyday human life. They do not want to be separated from the world; for them the monastic fuga mundi (escape from the world) is not their destiny. This world where the Lord lived is good.

Charles de Foucauld made it clear that Francis of Assisi wished to imitate the public life of Jesus, while he himself wants to imitate the saint's hidden life.

This hidden life is not an end in itself, but a strive for fruitfulness: the grain of wheat must die if it is to bear much fruit. This type of evangelization has two important aspects: the first is that of time, of patient waiting. Its work is a work of preparation, the first tilling of the soil. Brother Charles wrote: "There are too few missionaries serving as tillers. I would like them to be many... All this in order to arrive at Christianity, God knows when, perhaps after a few centuries."

The second aspect is certainly the sense of goodness as the evangelical vademecum (motto) of all the baptized. It is simple goodness, without undue concern for conversion (he wrote: "Let us banish the militant spirit from our midst"), a friendship in return for friendship, which gives rise to trust, a gratuitous, discrete goodness. It is not quietism and lack of sufficient intensity, inadequate witness to the Gospel, but "apostolate of goodness": the acceptance of long delays and a long-term mission and the desire to strictly respect the culture and conviction of others.

The friendship path

Brother Charles spent the last eleven years of his life at Tamanrasset, among the Tuareg people of the Hoggar desert in Algeria. It was the point of arrival of his search for the last and the lost. After months of following the desert tracks, he met Moussa, chief of the Hoggar Tuaregs, and asked him for hospitality.

He had envisaged Moussa's presence there as a preparation for proclaiming the Gospel. But he found that the time had not yet come for sowing, but for preparing the soil for a distant future. He put all his energy in the study of the Tamashaq language and initiated himself into their culture, discovering more and more that, in order to bring the Gospel, it is truly necessary to love and thus to get to know those to whom one is sent. That was the motive of his enormous, patient and erudite linguistic work.

At his death, his hermitage was full of manuscripts from which would come grammar, ethnographic works, proverbs and poetry. His relation with the Tuareg became more and more solid and sincere. He shared their life and aspirations. He shared also his reserves of food with them, during the great famine of 1907-08.

Exhausted by privations, in January 1908, he fell into a grave sickness. On that occasion, the Tuareg manifested all their friendship, taking care of him as one of them. Brother Charles wrote later on: "They have searched within the radium of four kilometers all the goats that could have a little milk for me in this terrible draught."

A loving presence

Ali Merad is a Muslim scholar who wrote a book about Charles de Foucauld by the title: "Christian Hermit in an Islamic World." He understood that de Foucauld had a superior attitude towards the Tuareg people among whom he lived in Algeria. He understood also that his practice of loving presence was a form of pre-evangelization and that de Foucauld believed that French culture would benefit the Algerian Muslim population. All this happened because he was a man of his own time.

But, in an authentic attempt at inter-religious understanding, the writer recognizes that Charles de Foucauld incarnates three characteristics that are compatible with the culture of Islam: he was a person of deep renunciation; his spirituality exemplified the mystical sense of silence before the majesty of God; and he strove fully to imitate Christ in his life. His holiness went beyond the limits of age and of every age.

Living in close proximity with the followers of Islam, Brother Charles was like the herald of the contemporary church's approach to the other world's religions. He was neither judgmental nor condemnatory, but affirming, in the other religions, what is good and beneficial to humanity. He sought to bring the love of Jesus to others by being their brother, earning their trust and extending his hands to those in need.

The open door

His death resembles the fate of the grain of wheat, which falls into the soil and dies alone. Charles de Foucauld had written, some years before: "Think that you have to die as a martyr, stripped of everything, lying on the ground, naked, unrecognizable, covered in blood and wounds, violently and painfully killed... and desire that it may be today." God granted his desire.

Two weeks after his death, Moussa Ag Amastane, the Tuareg chief who had become his friend, while remaining a fervent Muslim, wrote to his sister: "Charles the marabout (a man of God) has not died only for you. He has also died for us all. May God grant him mercy, and may we all be together with him in Paradise."

Brother Charles died alone. Taking the route of the desert, the route of naked faith and pure hope, he consecrated himself to an extreme task and set out alone on a long and difficult road, knowing he would not see the end of it, the road of preparing hearts to know and love God better.

He had a dream of founding a community... He had already prepared the rules... Now his spirituality is lived out by many communities: "smallness" as a style of living, humble jobs, open door, unconditional friendship, unnoticed service, listening to others, hours of adoration, the desert, search for God in everything and hope in the Risen Lord through all the events in life. 

Copyright?2003,2004 World Mission Magazine




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved