I appreciate when I come upon the story of a saint of whom I was previously unfamiliar. I did not know the story of Charles de Foucald. Once again, I am met with the life of a Catholic Christian who lived on the prophetic edge, walked outside the boundaries and encountered God in places where others did not go.
Charles was born in Strasbourg, France in 1858. He and his little sister, Marie, were orphaned. His mother, father and grandmother all died. His grandfather raised the two children. Three family members gone in an instant. It’s a life already marked by tragedy. I would like to highlight the important considerations of this saint’s life which make him so relevant for today.
Raised by his grandfather, Charles grew up in the Catholic faith. Like most youth, he went through a rebellious stage and turned away from any notion of faith and God. When his grandfather died, he took the inheritance and lived a wild life. He joined the military and this is where his life begins to read like an Indiana Jones film. Sent to Algeria, he becomes enamored by the North African region and the culture of the Arab people. He spent time in Muslim and Jewish communities, even disguised as a Jewish person to avoid persecution for being Christian. He gained the respect of the people he met and formed relationships with families. During his travels through the Moroccan region, he took notes about the region, the geography, the people, and the cultural practices for the French Geographical Society. These journals would eventually be published and were lauded by scientists and anthropologists. He had logged over 3,000 km in territory about which little had been written or researched.
Eventually, Charles would return to Paris and stay with family and friends while some of his work was being published. Inspired by those around him, Charles seeks out knowledge about his faith. Guided by a spiritual adviser, he begins to feel a calling to religious life. For a time, he joined the Trappist monks, but felt the need for a contemplative life within the community. On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Charles commits to spreading the love of Christ and to living simply in the way of Jesus. In Nazareth, he worked as a servant for the Poor Clares. Here he developed a devotion to the Eucharist. Ordained in 1901, he settled in the Algerian Sahara.
Charles de Foucald was happiest among the Tuareg people. He settled in an outpost seeking to spread the gospel among the people and hoping to attract others to join him and eventually form a congregation. This would not come to be. Europeans were not permitted to enter the region and World War I was affecting all areas. Sadly, Charles de Foucald was violently killed in his hermitage in Tamanrasset.
My attempt at giving a synopsis of his life does not do justice to the richness of this witness of faith. Although his mission was still converting people, his love for their culture is apparent. Most importantly, his determination to live a simple and humble life dedicated to spreading the love of God is what impacts me the most.
This canonization is significant. Here is a saint who inspires us to live with a goal of infusing God’s love in the world and embracing diversity. Reading about his life and discoveries and devotion to faith, I am curious about the many corners of the world of which I have no knowledge. No wonder Charles de Foucald wanted to live among them, the Tuareg are fascinating. There are two million Tuareg people in the Northern African region today.
May Charles de Foucald inspire us to reach beyond our own little corner of the world, to live simply as Jesus did and to love – a big global love.
Jan Bentham is a retired Religion Coordinator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is a musician, serving in music ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Ottawa. She currently works at St. Paul’s University with the Catholic Women’s Leadership Program.