Another servant of God canonized this past Spring was Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). He was an heir, a soldier, a roué, a geographer, a monk and a hermit. St. Charles is an especially appropriate patron for the present age since he combined a very generous ecumenical and inter-faith frame of mind with an intense devotion to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. De Foucauld was very broad in his outreach, but very focused in his piety. His humble shed in the Tuareg region of the Sahara Desert welcomed all visitors by offering both spiritual encouragement and material support. Yet, in that same shed, Mass was offered regularly to ensure the continuous presence of the Eucharistic Christ who, the hermit was convinced, radiated grace to the whole surrounding countryside, unbelievers and believers alike. Although there were few believers. de Foucauld died alone. Enclaves with his spirit would arise later.
The Scriptures this coming Sunday foreshadow St. Charles’ unique religious convictions quite well. “All things are vanity!” Qoheleth moans in the first reading. This conclusion led de Foucauld to leave Paris for the Sahara. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” the psalm response directs. Charles happily heard the voice of God in the commitment he found among Muslim peoples. St. Paul in the second reading truly hits the nail on the head: “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What could be more hidden than a desert hut? And again, “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Charles not only left behind luxury, he also left behind lust — and a lady friend. And St. Paul’s final words are spot on for Charles: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” St. Charles embraced all who drew up to his hut, those on camels, those on donkeys, those on foot.
Even the Gospel acclamation was made to celebrate Charles and his way of life: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” De Foucauld was indeed poor in spirit, knowing that Christ was his only true resource. But he also treasured the kingdom of God, forsaking all earthly honors and comforts. St. Luke’s Gospel advice could not be more pertinent: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
St. Charles de Foucauld was born in Strasbourg, in Alsace, in 1858. Orphaned at six years old, he was raised by his wealthy grandfather. He joined the French military, following the example of his grandfather. Having lost his faith as a young man, he lived a life of indulgence. De Foucauld resigned from the military at age 23, and set off on a dangerous exploration of Morocco. Encounters with robust Muslim believers there challenged him, and he began to pray: “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.” He returned to France and, with the guidance of a priest, came back to his Catholic faith in 1886, at age 28. De Foucauld took as a motto “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.” De Foucauld began seriously to follow Jesus while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He became a Trappist monk in France and Syria for seven years and also lived as a hermit near a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth. He was finally ordained a priest in 1901 aged 43 and left for northern Africa to serve among the Tuareg people, a nomadic ethnic group, saying he wanted to live among “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.”
In the Sahara he welcomed anyone who passed by, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or pagan. He was deeply respectful of the faiths and cultures he lived among. During his 13 years in the Sahara he learned about Tuareg culture and language, compiling a Tuareg-French dictionary, and about being a “brother” to the people. The saint said he wanted to “shout the Gospel with his life” and to conduct his life so that people would ask, “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?” At his beatification in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said that, as a priest, de Foucauld put the Eucharist and the Gospel at the center of his life. But his Holiness also noted that, since Jesus had come to unite Himself to all humanity, all men and women are called to share that universal brotherhood which St. Charles himself experienced and promoted in the Sahara.
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