Blessed Charles de Foucauld
To many Maltese churchgoers the name is known because his prayer appears in most hymn books in our churches. It is a prayer of deep trust in the Eternal Father and abandonment of the soul into His Divine Hands.
But who was Charles de Foucauld actually?
He was born on 15 September, 1858 to an aristocratic French family. His father was Viscount de Foucauld who died when Charles was not yet six years old. His mother died a short time afterwards, and he and his sister were brought up by their maternal grandfather.
Influenced by sceptic authors whose books he read when he was a teenager, he lost his faith.
Probably influenced by his family background, he attended a Military Academy. When he was 19 his grandfather died and this affected Charles adversely. He became sad and careless and barely graduated from military college. When his grandfather died, he inherited substantial riches and started living a life of decadence. He was foolish and immature and although his relatives reproved him, this did not stop his profligate life. He fell in love with a woman whom he took with him when posted to Algeria. She cohabited with him and after refusing to give her up, he was discharged from the army.
In 1881 he reenlisted when he discovered that his old regiment was returning to Africa, where they subdued a revolt in Algeria. Following this he embarked on exploratory work in Morocco in 1883 with great enthusiasm. He later published a book on his exploratory work which was well received in scientific circles. To honour his work, a postage stamp was issued by the French Postal Authorities in 1959.
It was at this time that an interest in the Catholic faith grew in him. He was engaged to a French noblewoman but did not feel called to marriage.
On his return to Paris, the need to return to his faith intensified and he began to go to church regularly. His cousin Marie de Bondy encouraged him and suggested that he speak to Abbe’ Huvelain, which was the final step in his conversion. At this stage he felt the call for the priesthood but the Abbe’ advised him to wait for three years to test the call.
He went to the Holy Land and became a Trappist monk, but after some time their rigidity did not suit him and so he founded an order based on poverty. The Abbe’ advised him that as he was so keen to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the best thing for him was to go to Nazareth and there find some humble job. Following his advice, in 1897 he went to work in the gardens of the Poor Clares there. He returned to France and received Holy Orders.
Being attracted to North Africa, he returned there in 1901 and established himself in a poor hermitage. Here, he found the way of life he desired. He worked hard, objecting to the rampant slavery trade. In his efforts to free slaves he even paid for the ransom of many.
To continue with his mission he went to the Hoggar region which was inhabited by Tuaregs. There he lived a nomadic life and in one locality he built a small and simple chapel. After some time he travelled to Tamanrasset, a small village in the region and settled there. The Tuaregs loved him as they appreciated his invaluable help.
The outbreak of WWI led to attacks on the French in Algiers. Seized in a raid by another tribe, Charles was shot and killed on 1 December 1916. Thus ended his life on earth. He left a legacy of love for the poor inspired by Jesus.
He founded no religious order but after his death a number of fraternities were born. In Malta there are a number of fraternities which meet regularly in prayer and contemplation. Among them is a fraternity composed of a number of priests. They fall under the responsibility of Fr Joe Fsadni of Rabat. The lay fraternities are coordinated by Mrs Margaret Borg (Tel.7901 4713). Meetings are held in various parishes and are directed by a priest.
On 13 November 2005, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Charles de Foucauld. It is noteworthy that tribal leaders attended the ceremony.
Blessed Charles has a special connection with Malta. When the Poor Clares had to leave Nazareth because of the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land, they were on board a ship but did not have any particular destination. Fr Charles, who was on the same ship, suggested that they establish themselves in Malta. They took up the suggestion and are now found in St Julian’s. Here they have a number of mementoes, mainly letters from him, and from time to time put their Chapel at the disposal of the Fraternities. One special occasion is the 100th anniversary of his death. On Thursday 1 December an Adoration Service will be held there between 6.30 and 7.30 pm.
On Friday 2 December, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna will celebrate Pontifical High Mass at St John’s Co-Cathedral at 6.30pm.