Who was Charles de Foucauld?

13 November 2021
A statue of Charles de Foucauld in front of the Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Catholic church in Strasbourg, France. Image: Rabanus Flavus/Wikimedia Commons.


On Tuesday 9 November, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced that Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Charles De Foucauld, considered to be one of the pioneers of interreligious dialogue, together with six other Blesseds, during a Canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on 15 May.

It follows the Ordinary Public Consistory of 3 May 2021, whereby the Pope had authorized the canonizations, without however setting a date for the ceremony due to the health emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld (known as Charles of Jesus), born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. 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. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.

Below is an excerpt from Robert Ellsberg’s November 14 2005 article ‘Who was Charles de Foucauld?’ which also appeared in print under the headline ‘Evangelism of Presence,’ in the November 14 2005 issue of the America Magazine.

By any conventional standard, the life of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) – soldier, explorer, monk and ultimately desert hermit – ended in failure. At the time of his violent death in a remote corner of the Sahara, he had published none of his spiritual writings; he had founded no congregation, nor attracted any followers. He could not claim responsibility for a single conversion. And yet his witness endured. Many today regard him as one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century, a prophet whose message speaks more clearly to the challenges of our time than it did in his own. With his beatification on Nov. 13, the church will at last have given official recognition to his significance as one of those seekers who periodically manage to reinvent the imitation of Christ in a manner suited to the needs of their age, and thus invite others to read the Gospel in a new way.

And yet Foucauld’s influence and challenge extend far beyond the numbers of his followers. His emphasis on the hidden life of Jesus bears implications for many aspects of Christian life today. For one thing, he anticipated a new model of contemplative life, not in a cloistered monastery, but in the midst of the world. Thus he overcame the artificial divide between the religious and secular worlds, pointing to a way of holiness that is accessible to everyone, in whatever desert we may find ourselves.

To continue reading this America article, click here.

Robert Ellsberg is the editor of Charles de Foucauld: Selected Writings (Orbis) and author of Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Crossroad).


Vatican NewsCharles de Foucauld to become a saint on 15 May

America Magazine and Robert Ellsberg – Who was Charles de Foucauld?


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