Charles de Foucauld in 1904-1905

Introduction

Before retiring to Peterborough, I worked for about ten years in Rome. I belonged to a Fraternity of priests which used to meet monthly at the HQ of the Little Sisters of Jesus, just by the Cistercian Abbey of Tre Fontane, on the site of the beheading of St Paul. One member of our Fraternity was a priest who worked in the Vatican, Maurice Bouvier. Maurice was chosen for an awesome privilege and responsibility. He was to prepare the papers for the beatification of Bro. Charles – he was what was called the Promoter of the Cause, the man who had to prove to the Holy Father the sanctity of the candidate. This meant a minute study of everything Charles ever wrote, especially his letters. The final dossier amounted to an enormous book, I suppose the most detailed book ever compiled about the man who, if not our founder, is certainly our major inspiration. Before I left Rome I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this book, and today I would like to share with you just a chapter from it. In this talk I have also drawn upon the book by Fergus Fleming called “The Sword and the Cross”.

Talk given in Walsingham for the October 2010 Lay community weekend

In 1904, Charles de Foucauld makes the first steps to leave his hermitage at Beni Abbes.

In front of the hermitage at Beni AbbesIn front of the hermitage at Beni Abbes

Morocco

You will remember that shortly after his ordination to the priesthood, Charles decided to install himself in the Sahara Desert. His motivation was simple. It was to seek out the poorest and most abandoned people, and serve them. “I wish to proclaim the Gospel with my life” he said; so, not by preaching or administering the sacraments, like conventional missionaries, but by his very way of being. He wanted to be Christ in the midst of people who did not know Him. The original plan was to set up house in Morocco; Charles already knew Morocco, because before his conversion he had embarked on a journey of exploration there, in order to compile an accurate map of areas where no westerner had ever penetrated. He had succeeded handsomely, but had needed to go in disguise. And now, in the early 1900’s, it was simply impossible for a Frenchman to live in the outback of Morocco - he would have been dead within days. This was partly because Britain, now recovering from the Boer War, was setting herself up as the defender of the Moroccans against French interference, and the Moroccans were becoming increasingly anti-French. It was all a great sadness, because Charles had been deeply impressed by the simple Islamic faith he had encountered among the Moroccans, and he felt a great affinity with them. But it was not to be. So instead, under the protective wing of the French Army, he settled in Algeria, not far from the Moroccan border, at an oasis called Beni Abbes.