Witnesses: Charles de Foucauld, Spirit of the Desert

One century after his death as a martyr, the priest who brought the Gospel to new places and lived among the Tuareg people in the Algerian desert will soon be proclaimed a saint.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld will soon be canonized. A little more than a century after his death, a miracle attributed to his intercession was officially approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in a decree signed by Pope Francis on May 27. He was beatified by Benedict XVI in 2005.  Blessed Charles is mostly known for having lived as a hermit among the Tuareg people in the Sahara.

His missionary zeal cost him his life. On the evening of 1 December 1916, Brother Charles was taken hostage by a group of rebels who were active the area in the Hoggar (Central Sahara) oasis of Tamanrasset. In a moment of panic, one of the rebels shot him at point blank range.

Charles de Foucauld was born on 15 September in 1858 in Strasbourg in the province of Alsace, on the border between France and Germany. The Foucauld family, rich and aristocratic, had a long-standing military tradition. At six years old, he lost both his father and his mother. During his difficult adolescent years he lost his faith. Made an army officer at 22 years of age, he was sent to serve in Algeria. He was thrilled by the discovery of new horizons.

Three years later he left the army and undertook a risky exploration of Morocco. Several times during his expedition he was offered protection and hospitality by highly religious Muslims. These were to become his friends. Having returned to France, he was deeply touched by the warm, respectful welcome extended to him by his family, especially his cousin, Marie de Bondy. His search for meaning began. Providence led him to meet Abbe Huvelin, a priest who would prove to be both a father and friend to him.

In October 1886, at 28 years of age, he underwent his conversion. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed to him the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, who shared our humanity and chose to lead the obscure existence of a village carpenter for 30 years. He perceived in this poverty and humility, a calling which was addressed to him. He wrote: ‘I greatly long to finally lead that kind of life which I caught a glimpse of while walking the streets of Nazareth … streets which had been earlier trod by the feet of Our Lord, himself a poor carpenter, who lived in obscurity and abjection.’

Charles had found his direction, but the journey would be long and difficult. He first spent 7 years as a Trappist monk and then 4 years as a hermit in Nazareth where he lived beside a Poor Clare monastery. These years were marked by prayer and silence.

He left Nazareth for good in August 1900, and spent several months in the Abbey of Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows) in order to prepare himself for the priesthood. Ordained on 9 June 1901 by the Bishop of Viviers, he set off for Algeria a few months later and settled down in an oasis of the Sahara desert called Beni Abbes, near the Moroccan border.

This time he didn’t build a hermitage, but a fraternity, and after three years of being in Beni Abbes, Brother Charles heard about the Tuaregs. They were a poor group of people, who lived in a place that was so remote that it was difficult to get to them. In 1904, some officer friends offered him an opportunity to travel with them in order to meet them. And so once again he took to the road. He spent more than three months trekking through the desert in order to arrive at the Hoggar mountains where little nomadic groups of Tuaregs roamed.

Right from the very beginning he felt an inner urge to make his home among them. But these tribes were deeply wary of their French occupants and it would be a year before their leader, Moussa Ag Amastane, gave permission for Brother Charles to settle down in Tamanrasset. Alone and defenceless, he trusted their offer of hospitality and within a few days built himself a rough little earthen house which he made his dwelling. He immediately began a passionate study of their language and showed a keen interest in their culture.

The First World War broke out in 1914 and violence spread even as far as the remote solitude of the Hoggar. There was a widespread rebellion on the part of many tribes against the French occupation. Insecurity grew. Brother Charles was aware of being in an increasingly dangerous environment. He was offered shelter in a French military post but refused. He couldn’t bring himself to abandon those who had extended him their hospitality for over ten years.

Friendship and mutual trust had taken root over the years and he felt bound to the Tuareg people by a deep human solidarity. Ever since being captivated by Jesus of Nazareth, he had sought to follow in his footsteps, living in imitation of him. He deeply wanted to become like him in his passion and death in order to give the proof of the greatest love.

One night in December 1916, he was assassinated. He knew of the risk, but he decided to remain to the end among his friends. Though he had a desire to have followers, Br. Charles did not start a congregation. However, his death influenced many people around the world including Br. Rene Vollaume, the founder of the Little Brothers in 1933 and Sister Magdalene, the foundress of the Little Sisters of Jesus in 1939 in Algeria, at the heart of the desert, following the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld. Many spiritual families also developed, inspired by the spirituality of Br. Charles de Foucauld


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