Charles de Foucauld: A saint in the desert

I read the story of his life in the UK magazine The Tablet. His life is rather extraordinary.

He was born in Strasbourg, Algeria in 1858. He became an orphan when he was five years old and his maternal grandfather brought him up to maturity and he was trained as officer in the military academy in Algeria.

When his grandfather died in 1878, he inherited a fortune but he fell out with the authorities over his relationship with a young woman, Marie Corben.

Matters came to a head when his squadron was sent to Algeria and he refused to dissuade her from joining him there. He was suspended from active service and returned to France. He entered a church in Paris and made his confession to a priest and received Communion.

From that moment, he dedicated his life entirely to God and this demanded a painful separation from his beloved family.

He went back to Algeria and entered the order of the Trappists and was ordained a priest in 1901. He settled first near the Moroccan border and built a hermitage at an altitude of 9,000 feet.

For Charles, to love Christ was to wish to imitate Him, his imagination being especially drawn to the hidden life of Jesus and his family at Nazareth.

Within the confines of a monastery, he did not feel close enough to the poor. As a priest in Algeria, he wanted to bring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to the people he felt were the most abandoned.

He established hermitages in different parts of the country and made long tours, largely on foot. He set conditions for anyone coming to work with him. They must be obedient Religious who were prepared, joyfully, for the sake of Jesus, to die of hunger and have their heads cut off. A Trappist prior in Algeria thought his life was more admirable than imitable.

At the end of his life, Charles saw himself preparing the ground for conversion. On December 1, 1916, the grain fell on the ground and died. The harvest would come later.

Many biographies about the life of Charles de Foucauld have been written over the years.

One biography emphasized the importance of contemplative life alongside the poor and forgotten wherever they might be, sharing in their every day existence, the “Nazareth” of Charles’ vision.

Today, Charles’ spiritual family numbering some 20 different groups, including priests’ fraternities and communities of lay people, can be found all over the world.

What relevance does the memory of Charles de Foucauld have today, when radical Islam is up in arms against the West and is targeting Christian communities?

First, we have to recognize that Charles was a man of his time. His mission in Algeria was made possible by the march of French colonization under the army. He thought that France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, had a Christian duty to civilize its dependencies.

On the other hand, he was ahead of his time in railing against slavery and in criticizing maladministration. As a priest, he came to see that his calling was not so much to convert as to befriend, thus the appellation of “universal brother,” by which he is best known.

An outstanding mark of his respect for the indigenous culture was his linguistic scholarship, the principal fruits of which were a Tuareg-French dictionary and a collection of Tuareg poetry.

At the news of his death, a local chief said a holy man had died not just for Christians but for everyone. “May God have mercy on him and may we meet again in paradise!”

Charles was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Benedict’s successor, Francis, mentioned Blessed Charles de Foucauld as an exemplar of fruitful work in his encyclical Laudato Si’. And in a talk last year in preparation for the Synod on the Family, he invited his listeners to enter, like Charles, “into the mystery of the Family of Nazareth, in its hidden, ordinary life, like most of our families do, with their pains and simple joys.”

A man of his time, and a saint for ours. (for your comment email:

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