Saint Charles de Foucauld
A rich young man
Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), a wealthy French aristocrat who had lost his parents in childhood and his faith in adolescence, was a young cadet at the prestigious military academy of Saint-Cyr. He thoroughly enjoyed his life. Or perhaps, not so unlike the rich young man who runs up to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life (cf. Mk 10:17-22), he felt an inexplicable void that he tried to fill with the pleasurable things in the world. A classmate remembered, “If you have not seen Foucauld in his room … sprawled leisurely … in a commodious armchair, enjoying a tasty snack of paté de fois gras, washing it down with a choice champagne, then you have never seen a man really enjoying himself.”
After graduating from the academy, Foucauld embarked on a military tour and a geographical expedition in Algeria. There in the vast silence of the desert, among nomads whose lifestyle differed so much from his own, the void the young soldier had tried to cover over with possessions began to make itself felt. A wordless question began to arise in him. Foucauld began to pray, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”
“Go… Sell everything… Come”
In 1886, after he had returned to France, the 28-year-old Foucauld confided his struggle to a priest, who invited him to go to confession. He did. Faith came, and with it, the summons. “Go…. Sell everything…. Come,” Jesus told the young man in the Gospel upon whom he looked with love. Foucauld felt Jesus’ look fall upon him as suddenly as it had fallen upon the other rich man almost 2,000 years earlier. He knew he was being asked to respond to that love with his life.
At this point, the stories of these two rich young men part ways, for the young man in the Gospel goes away sad, unable to part with his possessions. Foucauld wrote, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood that I could not do anything other than live for him alone.” He went, sold, and came – first to Trappist monasteries in France and Syria. After studies for the priesthood and ordination in France, he discerned a call to return to the desert. In the Sahara he would live the simple, austere life of a hermit among the nomadic Tuareg people. He wished to be an adorer in the wilderness, a brother to “the most abandoned.”
Father Charles wanted to evangelize “not through the word but through the presence of the Blessed Sacrament … through prayer and penance and … fraternal and universal love.” In his notes for the brothers he hoped would share his life but who never materialized, he wrote, “The whole of our existence … should cry the Gospel.”
Crying the Gospel
In 1916, Father Charles was murdered by bandits. His life and solitary death were a great “cry” that the one God, merciful and gracious, is the origin and the end of every love. This brother in the desert embodied the great “confession” that Pope John Paul II described as the essence of all consecrated life. Through a “profound ‘configuration’ to the mystery of Christ,” the pope wrote in the apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, “the consecrated life brings about in a special way that confessio Trinitatis [confession of the Trinity] which is the mark of all Christian life; it acknowledges with wonder the sublime beauty of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and bears joyful witness to his loving concern for every human being.”
Father Charles’ “confession of the Trinity” was fruitful: Not only the one religious community he had longed for, but multiple communities came into existence after his death. In 2022, Pope Francis canonized the martyr Father Charles of Jesus, a rich young man who sold all that he had to follow the Lord.