Charles de Foucauld’s life is marked by a dazzling conversion at the age of 27, which marked the beginning of a deep inner transformation for the scattered officer. The postulator of his case for canonization, Father Bernard Ardura, explains to us how the one who will be canonized in Rome on May 15 can be a model for Catholics today.
Interview by Adélaïde Patrignani – Vatican City State
From next May 15, everyone will be able to pray to Charles de Foucauld as a saint, the one who had been beatified by Benedict XVI on November 13, 2005. Trained in the Christian faith, young agnostic, cavalry officer devoured by his passions, explorer , so after meeting a god of mercy, a Trappist and finally a hermit given to all in the Sahara desert: the personality and journey of this testimony of the gospel is rich to say the least and not devoid of biases.
Father Bernard Ardura, of the Premonstratensian order, is president of the papal council of historical sciences and postulator – among other things – of the reason for the canonization of Charles de Foucauld. He first emphasizes the topicality of the spiritual message of the one who wrote “We do good, not to the extent that we say and what we do, but to the extent that we are” (Charles de Foucauld, spiritual advice).
What Popes Paul VI and Francis have brought to light is that he is the man of the brotherhood. Charles de Foucauld comes today to tell us again that if there is not this universal brotherhood, our lives no longer have any meaning, but our existence is in great danger. Today, this canonization is a blessing for the church, and not only for the church, but also for society, because it comes at a time when we live through weeks where we see the exact opposite of brotherhood that seems to win and has the upper hand.
Charles de Foucauld is the one who throughout his life has radiated a love, an unlimited love. He is the reflection of God’s love.
I believe he especially invites us Christians to witness this love. In this sense, this canonization comes at the right time. She was delayed [en raison de la pandémie, ndlr], it should have taken place two years ago. But it really is a great message about brotherhood and a brotherhood that is not just philanthropy. It is a brotherhood based on the love that God loves us with, on the love with which God loves all the others, those who are different from us and in whom we find brothers.
You are a postulator of Charles de Foucauld’s case. What particularly impressed you about following this gospel testimony?
Particularly striking is what Charles de Foucauld calls his conversion. In fact, it is not a conversion in the sense that it is usually understood when he was already baptized. It is a conversion in the sense that St. Ignatius of Loyola understands. For him, this conversion is a new beginning. By the time he reached adolescence, Charles de Foucauld no longer recognized himself in the expression of his childhood faith. That is why when he is 27 years old he will be able to write “for twelve years I lived without believing in anything and without believing in anyone”. He will then rediscover in the Church of Saint Augustine in Paris a God who is mercy, forgiveness, who will give him the meaning of his existence back, who will give him back his dignity. From that moment, Charles de Foucauld will have understood that this god of love is the one to whom his whole life will belong. I think this is a very important element in Charles de Foucauld’s life. I would say that he is the patron saint of beginners, those who have gradually abandoned religious practice, and sometimes even the explicit creed, and who will one day rediscover it.
There is another aspect which seems to me very important. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the Christian faith is not transmitted by proselytism, but by attraction, by attraction. Charles de Foucauld was a missionary, a missionary without preaching because he had no followers. A missionary who radiated the goodness of God through the way he lived, the way he behaved, with those he met. A man whose whole life has been a welcome, open to all.
You just mentioned Benedict XVI. Tell us also about François: What spiritual connection could we make between François and Charles de Foucauld?
When I first said to Pope Francis on the occasion of the Curia’s promises: “I think we have a miracle for the canonization of Charles de Foucauld“, he told me “so work, it’s interesting, I want to canonize it“. Then I sent the Pope the Italian version of the volume written by Pierre Sourisseau, Charles de Foucauld’s biography, and Pope Francis wanted to offer it to those in charge of the Curia the following Christmas.
It should also not be forgotten that the encyclical Fratelli tutti was already finished when the Pope added a number in which he explicitly speaks of Charles de Foucauld, “universal brother”.
What was Rome for Charles de Foucauld?
Rome was for him – as for any Christian – an obligatory point of reference, as far as Charles de Foucauld, while he had a very marked character, and perhaps even a tendency towards autonomy, always lived in the greatest and most edifying obedience. Obedience to his bishop, obedience to the prefect of the Sahara and therefore also to the instructions of the Holy Father.
For example, when we noticed and were touched here in Rome by the fact that Charles de Foucauld was celebrating Mass, but there was no one there that he kept the Holy Sacrament in his chapel, but there was none, we were touched. by saying “but if he becomes ill, if he dies, what will happen to the holy sacrament?“. He will then remain months and months without being able to celebrate Mass, without being able to keep the blessed sacrament in which he spent many hours of worship. Charles de Foucauld is a model of obedience, whereas he, a soldier, it was not at all.His conversion, his return to God, caused him to open himself fully to grace, and therefore he was transformed from within by this love of God, which somehow went out to fish him out to do it.
Charles de Foucauld is becoming a saint today, but who are the saints who inspired him who guided him?
There are certainly saints who inspired him, perhaps even without him knowing it. In any case, he has a great devotion to Saint Charles Borromeo, his patron saint. But I think when you reread Charles de Foucauld, there are some of his expressions, his sentences, that make us think back exactly to St. Augustine. Saint Augustine is also a man who had a real conversion. He went from indifference, from agnosticism to a completely extraordinary adherence to faith. That is why Charles de Foucauld is a link. He is a link and we turn to him today. Through canonization, he is presented to us as a model and intercessor. Let us take advantage of this to, thanks to Charles de Foucauld, get into this great family of friends of God. This aspect of the fellowship of the saints was very present throughout his life.
I believe that for us, this canonization is an opportunity for inner renewal, in the way we live our faith. Charles de Foucauld had wanted to receive religious instruction, catechism instruction from Abbé Huvelin, and Abbé Huvelin said to him: “kneel down and confess”, before sending him to communion. Our religion is not the book of the book, is not a religion of experience. It is someone, Christ, the Son of God, who came to share our human condition, to redeem us, and to open the doors of the Kingdom to us.
To those who do not know Charles de Foucauld, what advice would you give to approach him?
I recommend reading this beautiful work by Pierre Sourisseau, published in 2016 by Editions du Cerf: Charles de Foucauld, 1858-1916, biography. We can follow him very easily, and then we realize that he was not born a saint, he became so, by letting God’s grace work in him and by cooperating generously with this grace that transformed him, literally, and which made this uncompromising. soldier, this undisciplined soldier, who did not have enough of his money to satisfy all his passions, which made him a man quite given, who was annihilated in the midst of the poorest, in the Sahara desert, and who left a very strong sign, fraternity.