In May, France had the grace to see three more of its children raised to the rank of saint in the Catholic Church. The country of Clovis and Joan of Arc never ceases to provide, year after year, important contingents of saints to the Church, thanks to an exceptional fruitfulness—notably in the creation of orders and congregations—which continues to make its effects felt over the centuries.
On Sunday, May 15th, Pope Francis brought to the sacred altars three exemplary souls: the religious founder of a congregation Marie Vivier, the priest César de Bus, and the most famous of among them, the soldier and hermit Charles de Foucauld.
Charles de Foucauld’s curriculum is impressive: aristocrat, soldier, intellectual, explorer, missionary, mort pour la France—and now saint. So many qualifiers that contemporary judgement would dismiss him as a disgrace; so many titles of detestation in the eyes of the modern world. Charles de Foucauld lived his life through roles that western democracies now largely repudiate. But there are yet some who prefer to rejoice in all his titles of glory, acknowledging in Foucauld a model needed by our youth in search for ideals—ideals the world marks as noxious chimaeras that must be abandoned.
There is something eminently sympathetic about the extraordinary life of Charles de Foucauld. When I was still a child, in the small Catholic school where I received my first education, our teacher used to read us every morning a few pages from the life of this bad boy who, like Saint Augustine, brought tears of despair to those who had to look after him. I had an instinctive sympathy for this unbearable, careless pupil, who was nevertheless brilliant enough to find himself on the benches of the most prestigious French military academies—the school of Saint-Cyr, then the cavalry school of Saumur. I liked to imagine him in uniform, with a proud moustache and a laughing eye, like Gérard Philipe’s playboy character Armand de la Verne in the masterpiece drama Les Grandes Manœuvres (1955). Above that, I marvelled at his ardent conversion, like that experienced by so many other great men of the time, from Paul Claudel to Paul-Marie Verlaine to Joris-Karl Huysmans.
Charles de Foucauld, the scion of an old French noble family, was born in Strasbourg on 15 September 1858, in the family home, which occupied the site of the mansion where La Marseillaise was first sung in 1792. This was enough to place him, very early on, under the sign of the service of the fatherland. Little Charles was orphaned at the age of five and a half and raised by his maternal grandparents. Nurtured in a pious family, he nevertheless lost his faith at school. How could he believe when the greatest thinkers he revered could not agree on the existence of God? Expelled from school for laziness and indiscipline, he then alternated reading the most profound works with the most profane. He entered Saint-Cyr in 1876—in the same class as the future Maréchal Pétain, the famed “Lion of Verdun.”
When he came of age, he became the head of a nice fortune due to family inheritances, and led a fastuous life, escaping boredom with girls, cigars, and champagne (he earned the nickname “party-loving scholar”). He maintained an actress, but was cut off from his money by his aunt, who placed him under judicial supervision to prevent him from squandering his fortune. His military record revealed all the eccentricities of which he is guilty, a real waste for an undeniably brilliant individual. He barely managed to enter the cavalry school of Saumur—from which he graduated 87th out of 87.
What Foucauld needed was to be sent to the battleground, first in Algeria, then in Tunisia, to calm his ardour a little and make him give up his debauchery. He finally left the army in 1882 because he felt the stirrings of a first vocation to which he wanted to try his hand: that of the explorer.
Charles de Foucauld was one of those men who does nothing superficially. He set out to explore Morocco. To do this, he studied Arabic, in order to learn more about Islam, and Hebrew. He pretended to be a Jew, wearing a beard and hairnets in order to enter lands forbidden to Christians. From this first long journey, he emerged marked by the piety of the Muslims, and his reputation was soon washed away. His research and the considerable amount of information he brought back from his exploration earned Charles de Foucauld the gold medal of the Paris Geographical Society in January, 1885.
Charles’ conversion to the faith occurred shortly after his return from Morocco, in 1886. Paradoxically, it was the discovery of Islam from within that led Charles de Foucauld to return to the faith of his fathers. A few years later, in 1901, he wrote: “Islam has produced in me a profound upheaval. The sight of this faith, of these souls living in the continuous presence of God, made me glimpse something greater and truer than worldly occupations.” As a kind of wink of Providence, Charles received confession and communion in the parish of Saint Augustine in Paris, as if the venerable doctor of the Church, also once an unrepentant profligate, had taken this spirited young man with a disorderly life under his wing. Three years later, in 1889, he chose to enter the orders and become a Trappist monk. He joined the Ardèche Trappist monastery of Notre-Dame des Neiges on 16 January 1890 because, he wrote, it was this order that gave him the feeling of finding “the most exact imitation of Jesus.” Little by little, throughout his years of formation, he became aware of his particular destiny: he would be a hermit priest. He was ordained a priest in 1900, and in 1904 he settled in the Hoggar, a mountainous massif in southern Algeria, which he never left.
There, near Tamanrasset, almost 2,000 km south of Algiers, Charles de Foucauld became fascinated by the Tuareg culture. He undertook to write a French-Tuareg dictionary, a natural outcome of his apostolate among these deprived populations for whom his heart overflowed with love. Like so many other missionaries before him, on the shores of New France or in Asia, he proved that the ardent desire to missionize is also an extraordinary spur to progress in the knowledge of others. He put all his energy into studying the language and customs of the desert people he met, and planned to organise a lay brotherhood, the Union of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart, where he hoped to bring together Christians and Muslims on the road to conversion. Living in extreme poverty, he continued to maintain regular relations with his former comrades, the French soldiers present in this remote corner of the French colonial empire. In 1905, he met General Hubert Lyautey, who admired his work and became his friend. In 1914, when the war broke out, Foucauld chose to remain among the Tuaregs. He died on 1 December 1916, at the door of his hermitage, assassinated by rioters when the Sahara was in revolt against the French.
The process of beatification of Charles de Foucauld began in 1927. More than seventy years later, John Paul II declared him venerable in 2001; Benedict XVI made him Blessed in 2005, and Francis completed the process by canonising him in 2022.
Why this delay? The life of Charles de Foucauld is a complex one, and his exile in the desert has been subject to many interpretations over the years. Was he really a hermit? Was he not also engaged in intelligence work for the French army in Algeria? The wildest rumours circulated around him. Was he just another fruit of the outrageous colonisation of the Third Republic, or a true disciple of Christ? At the time of the Algerian war, Charles de Foucauld caused trouble. But as is often the case with the characters that the Church proposes to the fervour of the faithful, the hermit of Hoggar is not a figure cut from a single block, easily recuperated and assimilated by one camp or another.
On 29 July 1916, a few months before his death, Charles de Foucauld wrote a letter to the academician René Bazin. In it, he confided to Bazin about French colonisation, which he perceived not as a warlike conquest, but as a gentle conversion of souls. He warned of the emergence of a secularised society in the Maghreb region, which would use Islam as an identity bond to push back the French presence:
My thought is that if, little by little, slowly, the Muslims of our colonial empire in North Africa do not convert, a nationalist movement similar to that of Turkey will occur: an intellectual elite will be formed in the big cities, educated in the French way, without having the French mind or heart, an elite which will have lost all Islamic faith, but which will keep the label in order to be able to influence the masses through it. On the other hand, the mass of nomads and country people will remain ignorant, distant from us, firmly Mohammedan, inclined to hatred and contempt for the French by their religion, by their marabouts, by the contacts they have with the French (representatives of the authority, colonists, merchants), contacts which too often are not suitable to make us like them. The national or barbarian feeling will be exalted in the educated elite: when it finds the opportunity, for example during difficulties of France at home or abroad, it will use Islam as a lever to raise the ignorant mass, and will seek to create an independent Muslim African empire.
Fr. de Foucauld concluded in these terms:
If we have not been able to make Frenchmen of these peoples, they will drive us out. The only way they can become French is if they become Christians.
It is not a question of converting them in one day, nor by force, but tenderly, discreetly, by persuasion, good example, good education, instruction, thanks to a close and affectionate contact.
In 1928, one year after the opening of the beatification process of Charles de Foucauld, another military man, another Frenchman, also saw his cause brought to the altars: General Louis-Gaston de Sonis, who served in Algeria during the Second Empire, before defending the Pope as a Papal Zouave in 1870. A Christian officer of great piety, he wrote in 1864 about his Algerian experience in terms that could be, a few years later, those of Charles de Foucauld: “The Arabs will never forgive us for not being Muslims.” He added: “Algeria will only be conquered by France when it is conquered by religion, and the Cross will do more than the sword.”
These words sound strange to our ears, at a time when Muslim communitarianism is progressing everywhere in Europe, and particularly in France, the former colonial power that gave General de Sonis and Fr. de Foucauld their vocations. But let us not be mistaken: the sacrifice of Charles de Foucauld was a sacrifice of humility and gentleness, and his thirst to convert souls was not driven by a desire to conquer, or reconquer.
Today, the testimony of Charles de Foucauld reminds us of two essential principles that Louis-Gaston de Sonis had understood too. First, the true order of priorities should be that to make migrant communities French, make them Christians; second, the choice of the right means to achieve this end is not by force, but by tenderness.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).