Feast Day: December 1
The following story appeared in the November 18 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
In 1884, Charles de Foucauld returned to France after a secret expedition through Morocco, collecting geographical and cultural information for a book. Although he was only 26, he was exhausted from his pursuit of fulfillment in dangerous adventures, alcohol and sex. He had left the Catholic faith when he was a teenager and declared himself agnostic. However, he was unsatisfied with life. An avid reader, he began devouring books on philosophy and religion in hopes of answering his gnawing questions about God’s existence.
Two years later, he went to see Father Huvelin, a family friend and well-known spiritual director in Paris, to discuss the faith. However, Father Huvelin, knowing how much Charles had pursued God with his intellect, said no to any discussion. Instead, he invited Charles to Reconciliation and then to receive the Eucharist at Mass. In those encounters with Jesus in the Sacraments that day, Charles finally sensed God’s deep love and mercy. His desire to become a Religious was immediate. However, finding his true calling within religious life would take years of discernment and persistence.
Charles de Foucauld was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family in Strasburg, France, on Sept. 15, 1858. When he was 6, his mother and unborn sibling died in childbirth. Then six months later, his father died from tuberculosis. He and his younger sister, Marie, were sent to live with their paternal grandmother. His grandmother died from a heart attack soon after. The children were then sent to live with their maternal grandfather, a retired colonel.
During his teen years, Charles lost all interest in the Catholic faith, except for a lingering devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help that he had learned in his short time with his grandmother. Despite his love of books, he preferred to spend time at parties rather than do school work. His grandfather pulled strings to get Charles into a military academy.
Charles was in constant trouble at the academy for neglect of duties, but he was so charming and fun-loving, he got away with things that others never could. When he was caught sneaking off to see his mistress, he retorted that seeing her was a matter of honor. His superiors, who would normally expel someone for such breach of conduct, due to his eloquence, gave him only a reprimand.
In 1879, he graduated next to last in his class. He was sent to serve in the French colony of Algeria. When it was discovered that he had his mistress sent over, pretending to be his wife, no amount of charm could get him out of trouble. He was dishonorably discharged.
When he found out his unit was going to battle, he reapplied to the military and was accepted. After heroic acts in battle, he resigned. He then took on his expedition through Morocco in 1883.
Charles’ experience with the poor, devout Muslims awakened in him a desire for something transcendent. He had fame and an award for his book, but nothing satisfied his longing for the presence of God until his conversion in 1886.
In his zeal, Charles entertained wild ideas of extreme sanctity and religious life. Father Huvelin told Charles to be patient and sent him to the Holy Land
to discern his vocation. While there, Charles discovered his call to a spiritual
“Nazareth,” a life lived in the humble, hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth, before His public ministry.
At first, Charles thought this must mean he was to live the life of a desert hermit. So he discerned with the Trappists in France and Syria for seven years. However, his vision of a Nazareth spirituality did not fit with the Trappists.
At first, Charles rejected the idea of becoming a priest because he thought it was too honorable and inconsistent with his call to be among “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). However, over time, he realized that the true calling of a priest was to be a servant. He was ordained on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1901 at age 43.
Soon after his ordination, Brother Charles went to serve in Algeria with the Missionaries of Africa, who were structured as an apostolate instead of a strict Order. This allowed Charles to continue to pursue his vision to live out the hid-den life of Christ.
After a few years near a military outpost, Brother Charles went deeper into the desert of Algeria to live among the Tuareg, a nomadic ethnic group that lived primarily in the Sahara. He was the only Catholic. Due to canon law at the time, Brother Charles had to wait more than a year before he was given permission to celebrate Mass by himself. He had to wait even longer before he could reserve the Eucharist in the tabernacle. Permission was never granted to allow him to ex-pose the Blessed Sacrament. Because of his enormous love of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, this caused him great suffering. However, it also helped him to develop his spirituality of imitating the “littleness” of Christ in Nazareth.
A part of his frustration with being unable to expose the Blessed Sacrament was his deep conviction that silence before the Blessed Sacrament was a prayer in which everyone of all backgrounds and abilities could participate. He saw
in Adoration an opportunity for quiet evangelism and ecumenical prayer. He pointed out that Jesus was hidden in Mary at the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56), but was still able to affect Elizabeth and John the Baptist in her womb. Likewise, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament knows no bounds in the graces given to those in His presence.
On December 1, 1916, Brother Charles was shot and killed by a frightened thief. To some it seemed his efforts at evangelization had failed because he baptized so few. But the Muslims with whom he had lived, viewed him as a vibrant example of God’s love and a true universal brother. Soon after his death, his writing and spirituality resulted in religious congregations and lay associations.
St. Charles de Foucauld was canonized this year by Pope Francis. He has no official patronage.
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