Former French cavalry officer to be canonised

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Blessed Charles de Foucauld

One of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in modern Catholic life, Blessed Charles de Foucauld, will be canonised on 15 May 2022, the Vatican announced on 9 November.

Along with Blessed de Foucauld, the ceremony will see the canonisation of the Indian martyr Devasahayam Pillai and the five founders of religious orders.

Born in 1858, de Foucauld was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus.

“A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed his vocation: to follow and imitate Jesus in the life of Nazareth.”

During his adventurous life, he was a dissolute Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Muslim Tuareg in French Algeria’s Sahara Desert.

Known as Brother Charles of Jesus, he was killed at the age of 58 on the evening of 1 December 1916 by bandits.

By almost any standard he was a failure as a missionary, having never made a single convert in his life and killed by the very people to whom he went as a missionary. Yet his writings inspired the foundation, after his death, of the Little Brothers of Jesus and the Little Sisters of Jesus and became increasingly influential in the life of the Church in the 20th Century.

 Blessed de Foucauld’s hermitage, main photo, is pictured on the Assekrem plateau. It is still a pilgrimage destination for those willing to undertake the arduous journey to get there. Photo: Thomas Goisque, AFP
Blessed de Foucauld’s hermitage, main photo, is pictured on the Assekrem plateau. It is still a pilgrimage destination for those willing to undertake the arduous journey to get there. Photo: Thomas Goisque, AFP

He strayed from the faith during his adolescence, but during an exploration in Morocco (1883-1884), the testimony of the faith of Muslims led him to say: “My God, if you exist, let me know you”.

On returning to France, he asked a priest to instruct him and in October 1886 he said: “As I believed there was a God, I understood that I could not help but live for Him alone”.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed his vocation: to follow and imitate Jesus in the life of Nazareth. He lived for seven years with the Trappist order, first in Our Lady of the Snows, then in Akbès in Syria. Later he lived alone, in prayer, with the Poor Clares of Nazareth.

“For him, these missionaries, lay people and priests, will have to attend to the perfection of Christians, in order to work alongside others …”

Ordained a priest at the age of 43 (1901), in the diocese of Viviers, he went to the Sahara, first to Beni Abbès, then further south to Tamanrasset to live among the Hoggar Tuareg. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus.

“God – he wrote – builds on nothing. It is with his death that Jesus saved the world; it is with the nothingness of the apostles that he founded the Church; it is with holiness and in the nothingness of human means that heaven is conquered and faith is spread”.
Benedict XVI proclaimed him blessed in 2005.

Bernard Ardura, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences wrote of him that “Charles carried out an immense scientific and cultural work, but always in the perspective of mission.

Pope Francis approved a miracle obtained through de Foucauld’s intercession in May 2020. Photo: CNS, Lisa Johnston, St Louis Review
Pope Francis approved a miracle obtained through de Foucauld’s intercession in May 2020. Photo: CNS, Lisa Johnston, St Louis Review

Indeed, Charles, who did not found any religious congregation, is convinced of the need for missionaries of “evangelical deforestation”, isolated missionaries able to get close to all souls far from the truth and from Catholic life.

“For him, these missionaries, lay people and priests, will have to attend to the perfection of Christians, in order to work alongside others, because “these listen less to words and look at facts, the life of Christians, their conduct, the examples they offer. The life of virtuous Christians brings them closer to Christianity.”

Today there are numerous groups and religious families who are inspired by Charles de Foucauld, who, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis proposed as a model, speaking of the “dream” of the monk to become “brother of all”, fulfilled by “identifying with the least”.

“… the Church’s cardinals signed off on his and six other canonisations during a Vatican consistory a year later.”

At the end of a Mass celebrated in Santa Marta in December 2016 for the future saint, the pope again said de Foucauld was “a man who has overcome many resistances and gave a witness that has done the Church good”. For this reason, “we ask that he bless us from heaven and help us”.

Pope Francis approved a miracle obtained through de Foucauld’s intercession in May 2020, and the Church’s cardinals signed off on his and six other canonisations during a Vatican consistory a year later.

Blessed De Foucauld is considered to be one of the pioneers of interreligious dialogue. The previous time Pope Francis celebrated a public Mass for the canonisation of saints was on 13 October 2019, when he canonised St John Henry Newman and four others.