Blessed Charles de Foucauld
(Zeph.3:14-18; Phil.4:4-7; Lk.3:10-18)
In last week’s Gospel, John the Baptist told everyone to get ready, because the Messiah is coming. In today’s Gospel, the people ask John, ‘Master, what should we do?’
Yes, what should we do? For Jesus Christ really is coming.
To answer that question, let’s consider the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. [i]
Charles was born in 1858 into an aristocratic family in France. But like so many other people, his life didn’t start off too well.
When he was six, Charles’ parents died and his grandfather raised him. But he became vain and selfish and so overweight that his friends called him ‘Piggy’. His grandfather got him into the army, but they found him troublesome.
Charles later inherited his grandfather’s fortune, but he squandered it on wine, women and gambling. He once said, ‘I sleep late, I eat a lot and I think little’.
One day however, aged 28, something inside him changed. There in the North African desert where he served in the army, he saw how the Muslims worship. It made him think that there must be something more to life. He left the army, disguised himself as a Jew and went to Morocco to learn Arabic and Hebrew.
One evening, alone in a church, he prayed, ‘My God, if you exist let me know’. God did let him know, through his cousin, Marie. She talked with him for hours, gave him books to read and encouraged him to see her parish priest in Paris.
Charles found this priest in his confessional. He said, ‘Father, I have no faith. I’ve come to ask you to teach me’. The priest replied, ‘Kneel down. Confess to God. You will believe.’
Charles replied, ‘But I didn’t come for that’.
The priest insisted, ‘Confess!’ So, Charles confessed his many sins and he was forgiven. The priest then told him to go to communion, and he did. There at the altar, Charles saw the light he was looking for. He recognised God.
Later on, he said that as soon as he believed in God, he knew that he couldn’t do anything else except live for him.
Charles then joined a Trappist monastery in Syria, and later he went to Nazareth where he lived as a hermit in a small tool shed and worked as a gardener. But all the while he wanted to live among the poor.
In 1901, at the age of 43, he was ordained a priest and sent back to the Sahara Desert in Algeria. There he lived as a hermit, not far from the semi-nomadic Tuareg people. He came to love them, sharing their life and hardships and he wrote books about them and their language.
He helped them grow crops in the desert. He fed the hungry; he helped the poor and the sick. He also bought the freedom of slaves and he worked hard to protect them from mistreatment. The locals called him ‘the holy one’.
However, in 1916, during WW1, some Muslims fighting the French threatened to kill Charles if he didn’t renounce his faith. He refused, and they shot him. [ii] He died, aged 58.
So, what can we learn from Blessed Charles de Foucauld?
Well, firstly, he was fascinated by the ‘hidden life’ of Christ; the 30 years when Jesus lived quietly with his family and worked hard as an artisan. Jesus ate simply, dressed simply and lived simply, and he was gentle and loving towards everyone. Charles copied this way of life.
Secondly, Charles said that if we want to think, talk, act and pray like Jesus, then we should keep reading the Gospels, because that will teach us how.
And thirdly, Charles saw a profound link between Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and his presence in the poor. When Jesus said, ‘This is my body … this is my blood’, he wasn’t just talking about the Eucharist. He was also talking about the people around him. Realising this changed Charles’ life.
In 1916, he wrote that nothing in the Gospels had transformed his life more than these words: ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me’ (Mt.25:40).
In May 2022, Pope Francis will be canonising Charles de Foucauld.[iii]
This Advent, if you’re wondering how to prepare yourself for the coming of Jesus, remember the story of St Charles de Foucauld.
He knew that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (Jn.14:6). So, he was determined to live, talk, think, act and pray just like Jesus.
He even chose to die like Jesus, sacrificing himself for the people he loved.
[ii] Maolshealachlann O’Ceallaigh, Inspiration from the Saints, Angelico Press, NY, 2018, 30-32.