React In Hope: the figure of Charles de Foucauld in ‘Fratelli Tutti’

By Diego Fares, 23 November 2020
A statue of Charles de Foucauld in front of the Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Catholic church in Strasbourg, France. Image: Rabanus Flavus/Wikimedia Commons.


“Fratelli Tutti!” With these now-famous words, Pope Francis opened his new encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, showing that he was again inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the saint of fraternal love for all creatures and especially our abandoned brothers and sisters.[1]

Pope Francis has focused his doctrine on the proclamation of the essential obligations of Christianity: the adoration of God and the service of our neighbours. He states: “We believers are challenged to return to our sources, in order to concentrate on what is essential: worship of God and love for our neighbour, so that some of our teachings, taken out of context, do not end up feeding forms of contempt, hatred, xenophobia or negation of others” (FT 282). Several times, in accordance with fundamental teaching, the pope returns to the themes necessary for our conversion and the conversion of the world. He does so in the manner of Saint Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises (ES), where repetition is the key to “feeling and tasting internally” the truths that the Spirit proposes today to the Church and the world (ES 2).

Pope Francis is not bothered by his critics, those who claim his speeches are too concerned with politics and say little about eschatology. Rather, following the criteria that the Lord has given us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he removes eschatology from the sphere of abstract affirmations about the end of time and places it in our present-day reality, on the “roadside,” where we “come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters,” whenever “we encounter a person who is suffering” (FT 69).

If anyone had any remaining doubts about what Francis wishes to announce and witness during his pontificate, in this new encyclical he returns to point out where social issues, the economy, politics and religious life play out, undivided and unconfused: “Today there are more and more injured people. The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project” (FT 69).

The prophetic image of Charles de Foucauld

Together with the opening image of Francis of Assisi, a closing image of Charles de Foucauld encloses the entire content of the encyclical in an embrace full of hope. The pope summarises the encyclical dynamically by placing fraternity and social friendship as the central focus: “It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity” (FT 8). Let us dream together, he exhorts us at the beginning. And he repeats the suggestion at the end: “May God inspire in each of us the dream that inspired Charles de Foucauld” (cf. FT 287).

The figure of the soon-to-be-canonised Charles de Foucauld[2] serves as a great testimonial force in Fratelli Tutti: he gathers and updates the legacy of Francis of Assisi, synthesises and embodies the Gospel content that the pope repeats in the encyclical, and challenges us concretely wherever the greatest issues of our time arise.

The final two paragraphs, which the pope explicitly dedicates to Blessed Charles, are brief but dense with evangelical content. Francis writes of de Foucauld’s dream of a total self-giving to God and to his brothers and sisters that would allow him to become “brother of all” or “universal brother.” Charles understood that he could realise this only by “identifying himself with the least” (FT 287; cf. 2-4). The most important thing the pope points out to us is that this is not a random dream. It comes weighted with history: the dream of Blessed Charles is the same one that God inspired in Francis of Assisi. It is an ideal long dreamed, an ideal that also involves a path of transformation within us, to make us feel ourselves to be brothers, sisters and friends of all, just like these saints.

This dream of fraternity and social friendship has always been among the primary concerns of Pope Francis (cf. FT 5).[3] And we note that de Foucauld’s spirituality does not appear only in the final paragraphs but pervades the entire encyclical. In addition to the explicit reference to fraternity and social friendship specific to this saint, we can highlight two aspects of his spirituality that are extensively present in Fratelli Tutti.

The abandoned

In chapter three, the “stranger on the roadside” is called “the abandoned,” an expression that the pope uses to speak of the concreteness of Francis of Assisi’s universal love and Charles de Foucauld’s identification “with the poor, abandoned deep in the African desert” (FT 287).

This predilection for the most abandoned has not only an ethical character, but also a deeply theological one. In the life of Charles de Foucauld, abandonment into the hands of the Father (“prayer of abandonment”) and embracing the least in their abandonment are one and the same thing: “Embrace humility, poverty, abandonment, abjection, loneliness, suffering with Jesus in the manger; do not make any case for human greatness, elevation, esteem of men, but esteem the poor as well as the rich. As for me, I always aim to seek the last of the last places, to order my life so as to be the last, the most despised of men.”[4]

It is interesting to note that de Foucauld not only searches for the abandoned, one by one, but in each of them he captures all the people: to be precise, he goes in search of the most abandoned peoples. Blessed Charles said: “Since no people seemed to me more abandoned than these, I urged my request and obtained permission from the Apostolic Prefect of the Sahara to settle in the Algerian Sahara and to lead you into solitude, seclusion and silence, manual labour and holy poverty, alone or with some priest or lay brother in Jesus, a life as far as possible in accordance with the life of the beloved Jesus in Nazareth.”[5]

The other characteristic of Charles de Foucauld that Pope Francis makes his own is the embrace of the abandoned. It is not only one of mercy or justice, but one of personal and social friendship.

Regarding friendship, here is an important example of how Pope Francis categorises realities that are usually taken at most as good examples. By “categorise” we mean that he deepens and formulates the universal essence of phenomena that are often treated as special cases. Francis points out: “Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgement of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere. If each individual is of such great worth, it must be stated clearly and firmly that ‘the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.’ This is a basic principle of social life that tends to be ignored in a variety of ways by those who sense that it does not fit into their worldview or serve their purposes” (FT 106).

How much is a human being worth? In this encyclical Francis tells us that a human being has value not only because he is worthy of justice and mercy, because he is a brother or sister, and equal in humanity, but can be worth infinitely more because he is worthy of being our friend. “As the Latin American Bishops taught, ‘only the closeness that makes us friends can enable us to appreciate deeply the values of the poor today, their legitimate desires, and their own manner of living the faith. The option for the poor should lead us to friendship with the poor’ [Aparecida 398]” (FT 234).

The conversation

Chapter six, on dialogue and social friendship, reflects the wisdom of Charles de Foucauld’s own resolution to “increase my conversation with the humble, shorten it with the powerful.”[6] Worthy of note is the emphasis on dialogue in his way of approaching his Muslim brothers: “Approaching them, making contact, befriending them, making their prejudices against us fall, through daily and friendly relations; changing, through conversation and the example of our life, their ideas [about us].”[7]

His dialogue comes not only from his natural sociability, nor is it merely a pastoral strategy. For him the most important thing in life, prayer, is dialogue with God: “Prayer is any conversation of the soul with God […], an intimate conversation, a delightful secret.”[8] And it is precisely this most precious dimension of his that he offers to the most humble people he meets. Charles de Foucauld is one of those men of whom one can say, as the highest praise, “he speaks to everyone,” a person who makes no distinction between people, not only as regards being just and open, but also as regards the kind of conversation that we reserve only for those we consider worthy of friendship.

In chapter one – “The shadows of a closed world” – the pope goes beyond a criticism of the degradation affecting dialogue through false news, slander and denigration of neighbours, which are so damaging to the political and social life of a country and the world. Francis goes to the heart of a friendly dialogue because it is the only one capable of uniting humanity, of making us speak in the first person plural, saying “us” with the heart. He says: “They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity” (FT 43).

There is a way to converse that is only possible if there is social friendship. The pope aims to build together, to establish consensus around the fundamental truth of the absolute dignity of every human being, the pleasure of recognising the other and the recovery of kindness. These are the ways of dialogue that are fully in place when speaking among friends.

The real overcoming of conflicts: what is more intimate, what is more universal

The figure of Charles de Foucauld assumes a paradigmatic stature in the perspective of Francis, who presents him as the one who embodied in our time the Gospel truth of the yeast that ferments the dough. According to Guardini’s language it can be formulated as follows: only what is more intimate can be transformed into something truly universal; and only what is more universal can be radically internalised. This contrasts with all false universalism and all false intimacy.

It may be helpful, here, to remember how the then doctoral student Bergoglio dealt with this tension in his masterly lecture on political anthropology, delivered at the beginning of the 1989 academic year at the University of San Miguel. He spoke of the correct tension that must exist between interiority and totality (or universality) and pointed out the temptations against interiority, that is, self-closure and individualism, and the temptations against universality, that is, totalitarianism and loss of self. He stated: “Totality is possessed only from our deepest interiority; otherwise it becomes an abstract structure and does not serve as a frame for transcending conflicts, but becomes the loss of self in a whole that neither understands nor represents what is most authentic.”[9]

Today, in the encyclical, we see the pope has come back to this intimate concern in a broader context of reflection (cf. FT 5), where he seeks to universalise what exists most freely and intimately, such as friendship, so that fraternity can take root deeply in the social and political life of humanity. In fact, fraternity is not enough. From Cain onward, the clashes between brothers – from inheritance disputes to civil wars – are often the most fierce. For a good fraternal relationship it is necessary to cultivate freely offered friendship. This adds to fraternity the qualitative component of the free choice to be friends and thus consolidates a fraternal relationship that, because it is based on a common origin not chosen, can lead to friendship as much as the opposite.

The pope’s discernment on social exclusion as the evil of our time leads us to conclude that this exclusion is not resolved except by an intimate and gratuitous reality such as the desire for friendship, which involves considering the other not only as equal in dignity, despite differences of race, religion or social condition, but also as capable of friendship.

The figure of Charles de Foucauld, far removed from that of the solitary little friar dedicated to a heroic but individual and inimitable mission, before our eyes is transformed into a universal figure, who carries out a mission that is totally imitable and programmatic. It was his intuition, for example, that in order to prepare the Muslim world for the coming of the Gospel and Christ, a slow work of establishing unconditional friendship and service is required, without the pretension of imposing any universal truth. He universalised the Christian service practiced toward every person he met, and not simply general Christian ideas. On these, rather, he was silent. He declared: “Such is the pastor, such is the people.” “The good that a soul does is in direct proportion to its inner spirit.” “The sanctification of the peoples of this region is, therefore, in my hands! They will be saved if I become holy.”[10]

Let us see how intense, in Blessed Charles, is this relationship between the radicality of his personal holiness and the force of universal irradiation of that same holiness to all peoples. This is what the parable of yeast in the dough expresses. But Pope Francis also shows us the other side of the coin: the relationship between interiority and universality is not a one-way street, which from the more interior becomes more universal. Francis makes us understand that there is no true universality that does not try to take root in the deepest values, which are free and gratuitous. A politics that does not cultivate the desire for friendship among the people and that limits itself to manipulating attitudes and votes from outside, will never come to be true politics, that is, service to the common good. And although it seems to take longer to see this, we can say the same about the economy: an economic system that does not reach out to the most excluded will sooner or later collapse on a global scale.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have come to understand at an existential level this relationship between the health of an individual and that of humanity as a whole. And if we go a little further, we can say the same thing about joy and beauty: a joy that not everyone can rejoice in, that only a few can share in a selfish way, is not a full joy. It lacks something. Everything is connected, and the relationship between interiority and universality is about being; it is not a mere abstract theory.

Two principles

This healthy and fundamental connection between interiority and universality also illuminates those famous principles the pope always recalls: the principle that the whole is more than the part, and even more than the mere sum of the parts (cf. FT 78; 145; 215); and the principle that “unity is superior to conflict” (FT 245). These should not be read in the line of abstract reasoning, opposing the different definitions of each concept, but in the vital sense that goes beyond any definition, because it is expressed in the asymmetrical tension that is given between what exists in the most intimate and gratuitous setting, and what can be expected to be more universal.

The pope affirms in various ways that universality is rooted in the intimacy of what is more local: “There is a false openness to the universal, which derives from the empty superficiality of those who are not able to penetrate deeply into their own homeland, or of those who carry an unresolved resentment toward their own people. In any case, ‘we constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective…The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren.’ Our model must be that of a polyhedron, in which the value of each individual is respected, where ‘the whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts’” (FT 145).

The image of the Good Samaritan sums up this relationship between dealing with the whole heart of a single case and building of an “us” around it. For this, “we can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries. […] Yet let us not do this alone, as individuals. The Samaritan discovered an innkeeper who would care for the man; we too are called to unite as a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members. For ‘the whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts’” (FT 78).

In the same way, the union capable of overcoming conflicts is the one that is rooted “in the highest dimension of ourselves.” “On numerous occasions, I have spoken of ‘a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society, namely, that unity is greater than conflict… This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.’ All of us know that ‘when we, as individuals and communities, learn to look beyond ourselves and our particular interests, then understanding and mutual commitment bear fruit… in a setting where conflicts, tensions and even groups once considered hostile can attain a multifaceted unity that gives rise to new life’” (FT 245; our italics).

Speaking of his desire to be a universal brother, Charles de Foucauld said: “The natives seem to welcome us well. This reception is not sincere; they give in to necessity… How long will it take for them to have the feelings they simulate? It may be that they will never have them. If they do, it will be the day when they will be Christians… Will they know how to distinguish between soldiers and priests; to see in us servants of God, ministers of peace and charity, universal brothers? I don’t know… If I fulfill my duty, Jesus will spread abundant graces, and they will understand.”[11]

Francis points out two things as the highest and most intimate, because they are fully free: forgiveness and friendship.


After a detailed phenomenological description in which he admits all the difficulties and deviations connected with the idea of forgiveness, the pope speaks to us of “free and heartfelt forgiveness,” which is “a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive.” He writes: “If forgiveness is gratuitous, then it can be shown even to someone who resists repentance and is unable to beg pardon” (FT 250). In one of the most original passages of the encyclical, the pope states that forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and specifies his proposal: “In the face of a reality that can in no way be denied, relativised or concealed, forgiveness is still possible. In the face of an action that can never be tolerated, justified or excused, we can still forgive. In the face of something that cannot be forgotten for any reason, we can still forgive” (FT 250; italics ours). We see here, expressed as what is most universally able to be demanded, the condition without which a fraternal society cannot be built: forgiveness. That is, we see that it can only be given as a free and gratuitous interior act.

The pope does not say “we must” but “we can” forgive. This decision – choosing to forgive – is not idealistic or a purely religious matter. Any alliance – local, national or worldwide – always implies a decision to forgive certain things in order to move forward. Forgiveness as a free decision is at the root of any policy that seeks the common good.


Reflecting on friendship, Francis emphasises what he calls the “law of ecstasy,” of going out of oneself to find in the other a potential for the growth of our being. “In the depths of every heart, love creates bonds and expands existence, for it draws people out of themselves and toward others. Since we were made for love, in each one of us a law of ekstasis seems to operate: ‘the lover goes outside the self to find a fuller existence in another.’ For this reason, ‘people must take up the challenge of moving beyond themselves’” (FT 88).

This is why the noblest forms of friendship are found in the hearts that let themselves be completed. The bonds binding couples and friends open the heart around us, making us capable of going out of ourselves to welcome everyone (cf. FT 89). The most proper characteristic of friendship is love for others as such, and this moves us to seek the best for them. “Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all” (FT 94).

The best politics and aspects of each religion

Thus we see how the tension between interiority and universality is the one that builds the best politics and fosters dialogue between the best aspects of each religion. The pope writes: “Recognising that all people are our brothers and sisters, and seeking forms of social friendship that include everyone, is not merely utopian. It demands a decisive commitment to devising effective means to this end. Any effort along these lines becomes a noble exercise of charity. For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the ‘field of charity at its most vast, namely, political charity.’ This involves working for a social and political order whose soul is social charity. Once more, I appeal for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good’” (FT 180).

As for the relationship between the various religions, Francis continues to direct the dialogue not around ideas about God, but rather to the appreciation of every human person as a creature called to be a child of God. This, to begin with, always allows each religion to “contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society. Dialogue between the followers of different religions does not take place simply for the sake of diplomacy, consideration or tolerance. In the words of the Bishops of India, ‘the goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love’” (FT 271).

The eighth chapter – “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in the World” – is particularly clear if we read what Charles de Foucauld said about his hermitage at Béni Abbès, where he welcomed the visits of nomads and people in general: “In the ‘Fraternity’ – as he called his hermitage – to always be humble, sweet and serve, just as Jesus and Mary and Joseph did in the holy house of Nazareth… Sweetness, humility, abjection, charity, serving others.”[12]

React in hope

We conclude with a brief reflection on paragraph 6 of the encyclical, where Francis expresses his basic intention in terms of a “reaction”: “I offer this social encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new dream of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (FT 6; italics ours).

A reaction is necessary given the magnitude of the world crisis affecting us on all sides. The pope invites us to react not with words, but with a new dream, that dream realised by Francis of Assisi and Charles de Foucauld with small gestures of a radicality that carries within itself a seed of universal expansion. Francis proposes the concrete example of the many ordinary people who reacted generously in the face of the unexpected pandemic of Covid-19: “The recent pandemic enabled us to recognise and appreciate once more all those around us who, in the midst of fear, responded by putting their lives on the line” (FT 54).

The pages of his encyclical, the pope explains, “do not claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman” (FT 6). This love, capable of extending beyond borders “has as its basis what we call ‘social friendship’ in every city and in every country.” “Genuine social friendship within a society makes true universal openness possible” (FT 99). This is the dynamic contained in the words of St. Francis who declares “blessed is he who loves the other ‘when he is as far from him as if he were next to him’” (FT 1), those who are distant – from a geographical, cultural, ideological, political, or religious point of view – as much as those who are closest.

Fratelli Tutti has the style of a conversation between friends, of those conversations from which, dealing with the vital issues that challenge us and move us, more than mere definitions, inspire our interest in the concrete hope that comes from this friendly and fraternal way of speaking. In his friendly tone, Francis invites us to “the hope that ‘speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfilment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love… Hope is bold; it can look beyond personal convenience, the petty securities and compensations which limit our horizon, and it can open us up to grand ideals that make life more beautiful and worthwhile.’ Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope” (FT 55).

May God inspire this hope in us, as he inspired it in Saint Francis and Charles de Foucauld, who, as Madeleine Delbrêl says, “is, in himself, the coincidence of many opposites […] and appears to us rooted in the crossroads of charity. […] He makes the two extremes of love coincide: the immediate neighbour and the whole world.”[13]

Diego Fares is a member of the editorial board of La Civiltà Cattolica.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 12 art. 1, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.1220.1

[1].    Cf. Francis, Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, on fraternity and social friendship, October 3, 2020. In the article the encyclical is cited by the acronym FT.

[2].    On May 26, 2020, Pope Francis authorised the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree regarding the forthcoming canonisation of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

[3].    The then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke to the young catechists of Buenos Aires about the dream that makes you “walk in the loving presence of the Father, abandoning yourself to Him with infinite trust, as Saint Teresina or Brother Charles de Foucauld did.” (J. M. Bergoglio, Discorso all’Incontro arcidiocesano di catechesi, Buenos Aires, March 11, 2006, in Id, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola: Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, 413 f).

[4].    C. de Foucauld, Scritti spirituali, Assisi (Pg), Cittadella, 1968, 69.

[5].    Ibid., 182.

[6].    Id., Escritos espirituales, Madrid, Studium, 1964, 124 (

[7].    Id., Escritos espiritualesop. cit., 199.

[8].    Ibid., 90; 93.

[9] .   Francis, Non fatevi rubare la speranza. La preghiera, il peccato, la filosofia e la politica pensati alla luce della speranza, Milan, Mondadori, 2013, 179 f.

[10].   C. de Foucauld, Opere spirituali. Antologia, Milan, Pauline, 1961, 538.

[11].   Id., Escritos espiritualesop. cit., 144.

[12].   Id., Opere spirituali. Antologiaop. cit., 546.

[13].   M. Delbrêl, “Perché amiamo il padre de Foucauld,” in Id., Che gioia credere!, Turin, Gribaudi, 1969, 31-34.


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