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Brother Charles lived sixty years before the Second Vatican Council.
The notion of interreligious dialogue as we understand it today in the Church was totally foreign to him. While having been, I believe, a forerunner of the Council’s openness to the universal dimension of the mission of the Church, the process of dialogue between Christian believers and Muslims as such did not fall into its categories. He lived with the theology of his time in the fear of joining Muslims in order to save “these ignorant souls” by bringing them to know Christ.
In addition, he carried out his ministry in a specific socio-political context. France, in those days, extended its colonial empire over a part of Africa. At that time many believed that she was doing civilizing work and that she could provide the education necessary to free the colonized peoples from poverty and ignorance. Brother Charles adhered to this aim. He therefore did not see in the Islam of his time a religion with its own consistency, its history, its diverse streams with some of which Christians could enter into dialogue.
Although Islam had exerted on him, at a certain moment of his life, a certain fascination and though the meeting with the Moslems constituted for him a significant stage on the road of his conversion, he would have been far from subscribing to this conciliar vision of Islam according to which “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the One God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men…” (Nostra Aetate No. 3). He was therefore not situated in the theological problematic of the Second Vatican Council, which recognizes in non-Christian religions the presence of “seeds of the Word” which can constitute a basis for entering into dialogue with believers of another religion.
However, it seems to me that we can nevertheless consider Brother Charles as a precursor of dialogue. Because he instituted with the Muslim populations that he met, in particular with the Tuaregs, a “dialogue of life” which was later presented by the encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam” of Pope Paul VI in 1964 as the fundamental basis of any dialogue: “We cannot save the world from outside; like the Word of God who became man, we must assimilate, to a certain extent, the forms of life of those to whom we want to bring the message of Christ …. We must share common customs, provided they are human and honest, especially those of the little ones, if we want to be heard and understood. Before even speaking, it is necessary to listen to the voice and even more so to the heart of man … We must make ourselves the brothers of men … The climate for dialogue is friendship “N ° 87.
Thus, Brother Charles, by devoting all his energy and a large part of his time to learning the language of the Tuaregs whose life he shared, by developing very simple conversations on the realities of their daily life, by opening up himself to their poetry and thus by trying to understand the genius of this people, was able to open, by the dialogue with its hosts, a climate of confidence to the point where he became for many “a friend”. He thus showed that the mission of the Church is also to make up brothers, while respecting differences of culture or religion, as the Church subsequently did in many countries of the planet, based on the openings of the Second Vatican Council.
We can therefore recognize, for the priests of the Jesus Caritas priestly fraternity that we are, that Brother Charles opened to us a spirituality of dialogue which can still inspire us in the encounters we live not only with Muslims but also with all those who do not share our faith. Thus the path of dialogue he opened with the Tuaregs unfolded in several fundamental figures:
He was able to accept being disorientated in order to immerse himself in the other’s country. He carried out this movement that Pope Francis calls “a Church going out”. He wanted to be welcomed by these people and become as much as possible “one of them”. And he made the learning of their language a mystical work because it was for him in the line of the incarnation of Christ in this humanity whom he came to save.
- Although his greatest desire was the conversion of Muslims to the Christian faith, he never exerted any pressure to achieve his ends. He always respected their freedom. In 1908 he recognized that he would not make any conversions and concluded that it was probably not God’s will. But he remained in the midst of this Tuareg people in the name of the alliance he had made with them, simply to advance on the path of brotherhood with them.
- His goal: to become the friend of the other In a letter he addressed to a correspondent, he thus characterized the mode of relationship he wanted to adopt with the Muslims around him: “First, to prepare the ground in silence through kindness, intimate contact, good example; to love them from the bottom of my heart, to be esteemed and loved by them; In this way, to break down prejudices, to gain confidence, to acquire authority – this takes time – then to speak in particular to the best disposed, very cautiously, little by little, variously, giving to each one according to what he is capable of receiving. “. In the absence of being able to explicitly proclaim the Gospel, he personally wanted to become the presence of the Gospel. This is what he meant when he said he wanted to “cry out the Gospel not with words but with all his life”. He was able to adjust to the way God looks at the Muslims whom he met. He did not first see them as “infidels” or “disbelievers”, but, in his desire to become a universal brother, he considered them “beloved brothers, children of God, souls redeemed by the blood of Jesus, beloved souls of Jesus”.
- He manifested the face of a diaconal Church. He not only lived with them, but also contributed, as far as he could, to the improvement of their living conditions and to the development of their country. He fought against slavery, fought disease, introduced medicine, new agricultural techniques and means of communication into this very poor country.
- Whenever he could, he opened a spiritual dialogue with Muslims. Of course he did not adhere to the doctrine of Islam at all. But he recognized in it a point in common with the Christian faith: the double commandment to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself. On this basis he developed numerous dialogues with his Muslim friends, showing them in various circumstances how this double command could be deployed in their daily relations.
- Finally, and this is not one of the least elements of dialogue, he made the paschal mystery the royal road to dialogue. As he was constantly contemplating the life of Christ in Nazareth, like him he took the path of humility, of poverty, of listening and of dying to oneself in meeting the other. Throughout his life he has manifested that “there is no greater love than to give your life for those you love.“
By presenting himself as “a pioneer”, he showed us that the dialogue of life is an integral part of the mission of the Church.
As diocesan priests, we share with the whole Church the only mission that she has: to evangelize. Pope Francis has given us very clear guidelines to do so in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”. We make all their proposals our own and we try to be inspired by them for our evangelizing action in our parishes, communities, centers of Christian formation, centers for the poorest, etc.
However, the question is valid if we, as priests of the IESUS CARITAS Fraternity, put some particular key points that are born from the charism of Brother Charles and from our spirituality. We think so and here are some of those key points.
1. THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATION
Our way of evangelizing is marked in the first place by the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery that fascinated Brother Charles and is at the root of his spirituality:
“The incarnation is rooted in the goodness of God. But one thing appears, first, so wonderful, brilliant and amazing that it shines like a dazzling sign: it is the infinite humility that contains such a mystery. God, the Being, the Infinite, the Perfection, the Creator, the immense Omnipotent, sovereign Lord of all, becoming man, joining a soul and a human body and appearing on earth as a man, and the last of men “.
The incarnation always occurs in a certain time and place and culture. Brother Charles did a great job to learn about the culture of the Tuaregs, their language, their customs, their poetry, etc. We would always like to take into account the historical context, the characteristics of the time and the culture in which we evangelize, because we are convinced that God prolongs his incarnation in each age and the Risen Christ continues to speak to us from the signs of the times to invite us to build his Kingdom of life.
Considering that Christ enters the world through “the door of the poor”, as Bishop Enrique Alvear said, we too would like to enter through this door in our evangelizing action and from there proclaim the Gospel to all.
2. THE PERIPHERIES.
In a spirit of availability to our Bishops, we would like to prioritize the most abandoned and farthest places to the Church. The geographical or existential peripheries, as Pope Francis says. They are the frontier places: marginal populations, distant fields, refugee camps, migrants, addicts, deprived of liberty, the excluded in general. Using poor means is basically our own friendly and merciful presence.
Brother Charles tells us:
“For me, always look for the last of the last positions, to be also small as my Master, to be with him, to march after him, step by step, as faithful servant, faithful disciple and – since in his infinite goodness, incomprehensible He deigns to speak like that – as a faithful brother and faithful husband “.
“This divine banquet, of which I am a minister, is necessary to present it not to the brothers and relatives, to the rich neighbors, but to the lame, the blind, the most abandoned and lack of priests souls … I have requested and obtained permission to settle in the Algerian Sahara.”
If we are sent to more affluent places, we would like to be agents of social awareness and bridge the rich to the realities of the poor.
We come as brothers and friends of the poor. We discover God already present in their cries and aspirations. We in turn allow the poor to evangelize us and enrich our ministries.
3. THE PERSONAL TESTIMONY
In every place, but particularly in marginalized areas, we want to give priority to evangelization through testimony rather than through words. Testimony marked by closeness, simplicity, welcome, kindness, interest in what happens to the other, concrete service, inner joy. Brother Charles wrote to a friend:
“You want to know what I can do for the natives. It is not possible to speak directly about our Lord. This would be to make them flee. You have to inspire them confidence, make friends with each other, give them small services, give them good advice, make friends with them, discreetly encourage them to follow natural religion, show them that Christians love them4 ” (ESE p.84).
Already in a retreat in November 1897, he had formulated his way of evangelizing with this phrase, placed in the mouth of Jesus: “Access your vocation: to proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops, not with your word, but with your life“.
This does not mean that we neglect the ministry of the Word. We know that it is an essential part of our mission to arouse and nourish faith: “faith comes through preaching, and preaching through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The Second Vatican Council says it clearly in the decree on “Ministry and life of priests”: “With the word of salvation faith is raised in the heart of non-believers and strengthened in that of believers, and with faith the congregation of the faithful begins and develops”
4. OUR OPTION FOR THE FRATERNITY
From our option for fraternity, we privilege teamwork with other priests, be or not of our Fraternity, religious, deacons and lay people. We want to be more brothers than religious tyrants/masters or lords, as the Council says: “presbyters dwell with other men as brothers”6 .
Br. Charles went ahead in this sense to the Council when he seeks and values the work with laity:
“Next to the priests, Priscilas and Aquilas are needed, to see those who the priest does not see, to penetrate where he cannot penetrate, to go to those who run away, to evangelize with a benevolent contact, with an overflowing kindness above all, an affection always willing to give, a good example that attracts those who turn their back on the priest and are hostile to them on principle “(from Assekrem, May 3rd, 1912).
For this reason, we want to give time to the formation of the laity, for their spiritual accompaniment and to support the formation of fraternal communities, respecting the rhythm of each person.
Likewise, our option for fraternity makes us to value brotherhood as a way of life. We believe in universal brotherhood even with the unchurched, characterized by friendship, reciprocity, dialogue of life.
Fraternity leads us, also, to favor the participation of the laity in the pastoral management of our parishes, avoiding all authoritarianism and clericalism on our part and all passivity on the part of the laity. The existence of Pastoral Councils, Economic Affairs Committees, Teams to animate the different pastoral areas, Parish Assemblies, Joint pastoral planning, etc. they should be a distinctive mark of the parishes or other pastoral structures entrusted to our care.
5. SPIRITUAL LIFE AND EUCHARIST.
This way of evangelizing supposes a very deep spiritual life in each of us that leads us to contemplate Jesus in the Gospels in order to configure ourselves more and more with Him, which is the work of the Spirit in us. He will enable us to enter into the dynamics of the descent, of the abasement, of the dispossession, characteristic of the mystery of the Incarnation, leaving many things for Him and for fidelity to the Gospel: prejudices, material goods, prestige, search for power, securities, etc. The Holy Spirit will give us inner freedom to find new paths and fields in the evangelizing task of the Church, always seeking the will of the Father, with infinite confidence.
Our missionary impulse above all urges/empowers us to reach and stay in the most difficult places, is sustained by the celebration of the Eucharist, daily Adoration and by the other means of spiritual growing of our fraternity. They enable us to become aware of the infinite Love of God for us, of His fidelity and mercy.
Eucharist should become a lifestyle of breaking bread/stories/word with people of other faith traditions.
We must promote a similar spiritual experience among the laity if we want to transform our parishes in the missionary sense that Pope Francis wishes: a Church on the way out that, without fear of accidents or getting stained with the mud of the road, goes in search of the far away and the discarded by society7 .
The Eucharist, on the other hand, opens us to belonging to an ever-broader ecclesial body. We want to be very aware that Evangelization is a mission shared with the whole diocesan and universal Church. As diocesan priests we want to be the first to feel part of a presbytery, with its Bishop at the head, supporting the gestation and implementation of diocesan projects to which we contribute with our pastoral charism and accents.
FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION AND PRAYER
- Would you add any item to this outline?
- Is my pastoral structure (parish, center of formation, etc.) walking in this direction?
- What should mark my style of life to be coherent with our way of evangelizing?
All is grace! We are welcomed to CHRISTMAS and the New Year at the same time as Covid 19. Édouard and Paul-François tested positive, Immanuel and I negative, last Monday night after the visit of a niece of Edouard’s who came from Paris for 16 and 17 December. That’s the reason why we are organising ourselves for a new situation without knowing what the day holds.
Thank you for your news and your best wishes. Almost all arrived after a long silence that is explained by the events of this special year, which has challenged usual habits and relationships. It is also a new way to share our story over years that have left traces with the celebrations of historical characters, who had not marked my story as I was far from France and without the possibilities of information that we have now.
To those who may have questions about my activities and my new book, I must tell them that, for obvious commercial reasons, it will not be published until the date of canonization is announced. It has been at the publishers for more than a year and will only speak about Charles de Foucauld in Tamanrasset, beginning with the story at the Asekrem, where he was only a few months in 1911, and which still poses questions about his true motivations. It will be followed by a chapter on his activities the following year (1912) in Tamanrasset typical of his conception of world affairs. Chapter 3 will be limited to his only pre-planned travels with a young Tuareg in Marseille in 1913, never before mentioned, not even in the most recent books. Finally, the last chapter, on January 12, 1913 in Tamanrasset will allow us to see him live out his various actions as we try to follow his revised and amended timetable.
This will be just an introduction to other topics that merit clarification and which can still reveal to us a form of holiness that is not always clear. I have just learned that Pope Francis, was not content to conclude his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, speaking about Charles, but has just offered a biography of this future saint to the members of the Roman Curia, without citing what book this is from. Concluding “Fratelli tutti” by mentioning our brother Charles, has encouraged me to continue my work to show in greater detail what his fraternal life was like with the men and women he loved, not only for a time, for a single day, but every day, during the last years of his life. Hundreds of people came to what he called “communion” when he was still dreaming of gathering disciples, but where he was always alone.
In the early years he only wrote down the names of the recipients of his alms and small gifts, on loose sheets that are not found in the edition of his notebooks. It is important because it lets us know that he knew hundreds of people, from the early years. On the other hand, during his last three years, he wrote down their names every day and we can tell that several came hundreds of times. These figures are important to understand the importance of these visits he received, and the subsequent contacts they had among themselves.
The one who in the early years did not go out further than a hundred meters, no longer hesitates to go miles to those who are sick, to visit his new house or see his garden, while busy with his linguistic work, his times of prayer and a very copious correspondence. I wish to show that he no longer does anything for their conversion, even if he often speaks about it, but he feels the duty of working for their salvation as his own, loving them as they are and as Jesus loves them. So, he expresses his concern for the salvation of all in the daily lists of his notebooks, in his rare personal writings or in his abundant letters.
So, I am learning to rely on these people, surprised to discover that many were still alive when I arrived in Tamanrasset and the Asekrem in 1955 and even much later.
Charles still has certainly something to say to our Church and to the world, even if it is not new. The official and universal recognition of his holiness will be a good support for all those who refer to him throughout the world, and especially among bishops, priests and lay people, religious both men and women who were inspired by him and who have died, after having played their part in the world. Especially, it will be a challenge to young people, those not interested in this testimony of another century.
Thanks to Pope Francis, who could have ended up quoting Francis of Assisi again, and who has spoken to us of Charles, as if granting him an important role for the future of the Church and of the world after the universal pandemic, which is delaying his canonization. We have never spoken as much about our Blessed Charles as recently with the death on his feast day of Bishop Teissier. Algeria’s ambassador to France spoke in prophetic language, describing him as a saint and above all as a compatriot. The Canonization will not contribute much to these ceremonies in Lyon and at Notre Dame of Africa. Many would have seen the magazine “En Dialogue” No. 14, about Charles of Foucauld and the Muslims, published just before these events.
I must admit that aging does not improve my chances of mobility, even indoors and despite outdoor physiotherapy sessions. The daily questions take up more time than my work about de Foucauld, and the too distant prospect of seeing my book come out does not encourage me to work, despite questions coming from all over, including Tamanrasset and other parts of Algeria, which oblige me to answer about small things that keep me in touch with his history.
A happy Christmas and a better 2021 to all.