This Sunday Blessed Charles de Foucauld is to be canonised. I invited Mgr. John McEvoy, who has been in the position of Priest Responsible for the European Region (2011-2017) in the Jesus Caritas Priests’ Fraternity to address the following question:
What has Brother Charles de Foucauld to say to priests in the 21st century?
Though beatified in 2005 and canonised in 2022 officially, adherents of his spirituality will always call him Brother Charles. He was centred on Jesus Caritas (Love), always trying to cry the Gospel with his life and be a universal brother, especially to the most abandoned. Fr Charles de Foucauld would probably be absolutely shocked to be promoted in this way. Any declaration of a new saint is to make his charism available to the entire Church.
The life of Charles de Foucauld went from his birth in Strasbourg, France in 1858 to his being killed on 1 December 1916 in the Algerian Sahara desert, where he lived among Muslim Touareg tribal people . His upbringing was as son of aristocratic parents who died when he was very young, leaving his care to his grandparents, who had an enormous positive influence in his life. In his later teens, he drifted from his earlier fervour. He displayed considerable intellectual ability. He entered military Cadet School and was commissioned and found himself in Morocco with the army. For his ‘goodtime behaviour’ while an officer, he found himself dismissed. Leaving the army, he returned to Morocco where he did important work on geographical analysis travelling throughout the country disguised as a travelling rabbi. This reconnoitring resulted in valuable publications which are still a great record of Morocco in the 1880s. While he was ‘lapsed’ at this point he was highly impressed by the fervent prayed many times daily of the Muslims.
Back in France he had an encounter with a noted priest at Saint Augustine’s Church in Paris, Père Huvelin, which led to his reconciliation and conversion and return to faith in a very intensive fashion. He now wished to devote himself absolutely to doing the work of Jesus and set out to be at his service in every way possible. The following part of his life included a few years spent in Palestine at Nazareth where he worked as a gardener for the Poor Clares and tried to live the ‘Nazareth’ life, trying to apply the Gospel to his life in a radical way. He had seven years exploring the Trappist life spending time in Syria and in Notre Dame des Neiges in France. In 1897, he ceased with the Trappists and sought to become a priest through the diocese of Viviers. He completed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained in 1901 by the Bishop of Viviers, who agreed that he be allowed to serve in the Sahara region of Algeria, then a French colony so that he could live among the poorest of the poor. He had always been seeking to reach out to those on the margins. For the last 15 years of his life he lived mainly in two locations in Algeria, first in Beni Abbes, where his tomb is to be found and later for about nine of those years at Tamanrasset, where with some help from the French army he constructed a monastic fortress to be the location of his hoped for form of life to witness among the nomadic Touareg peoples who came and befriended him greatly, including saving his life when he was very ill in 1909. He studied the language of the nomads and produced a Touareg-French dictionary, which was a mammoth task. His life at Nazareth included long hours in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a very structured order of the day embracing prayer, work, meals and rest. His planned monastic community did not come to fruition in his lifetime. He died 1st Dec 1916, as a result of misunderstanding about the role of the French army in the country and the mistaken assumption that Brother Charles was storing army guns in his place of residence. His death was immensely mourned by his beloved Touareg nomadic friends.
A biography of Brother Charles de Foucauld was published in 1921 in French by Réné Bazin. This was soon translated into other languages including English and through it, the remarkable life of Brother Charles became widely known. Within a few years by about 1926, there were those who wished to model their lives as priest on the spirituality of de Foucauld. Big emphasis would be placed on Adoration, on the sharing of the Gospel, on living the life of Nazareth and trying to reach the most needy, anticipating the idea much later known as ‘preferential option for the poor’. Fr René Voillaume and others discovered the message of de Foucauld in their formative years in the late 1920s.
While Brother Charles had no follower in his lifetime, possibly because many considered his regime too difficult, from the late 1920s and for several decades afterwards very many came to be attracted by his spirituality.
About 18 branches of the family of Charles de Foucauld make up the tree rooted in his spirituality. The earliest groups were religious congregations, variously named as Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Gospel and Little Brothers of the Gospel and several other groupings of lay and priestly fraternities. About 1951 there was the start of what led to the establishment of Jesus Caritas Priests’ Fraternity. René Voillaume, a priest member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, was very influential with others in sharing the elements of fraternity initially with the priests of France. Soon afterward the same insights were shared with clergy in the rest of the Francophone world including large parts of Africa. In the following years the gift of the Fraternity reached other countries and Ireland is approaching the 50th anniversary of its arrival among us, thanks initially to the encouragement and invitation of Little Sisters of Jesus based in England, where some priests had already established the Fraternity in some dioceses. Over time almost every Irish diocese came to know of the Fraternity and how beneficial it was for those who formed little groups (fraternities) preferably of between 6 and 8 priests. The commitment was to spend daily time in adoration, monthly meetings with the fraternity, Review of life and Gospel sharing together, sharing a meal, having a day in the desert (any quite place away from one’s normal situation). The month of Nazareth (four full weeks of sharing fraternity) was strongly recommended in preparing for commitment. Bishops were encouraging of the development.
Brother Charles wrote a lot, thousands of letters which have survived, huge amounts of reflections and meditations on Gospel texts which he did during Adoration. His writings have been the basis of what has resulted in the flourishing of his spiritual family in many diverse branches.
In Kildare and Leighlin, there have been priests in fraternity since the late 1970s, as many as 30 when our numbers were larger than presently. They have the option of taking part in national events organised in the Irish Region (full island) annually, Christmas Days of Recollection, Summer Retreats in the style of Nazareth, Months of Nazareth in several locations, notably in Clifden in the early years.
While there is a minimum of structures there are Statutes which have received approval from the Holy See. World Assemblies have been held every six years since the 1960s, the first was in Palestine and the 2019 Assembly was in the Philippines. A team of six is chosen to give international leadership, including a member from Asia, Europe, Africa, South and North America along with the one who is General Responsible. The responsible is the person co-ordinating at each level, International, Regional, Diocesan and in the single fraternity.
Priests have found the structure proposed by the Jesus Caritas Priests’ Fraternity to be of great support. Trust is built up in the group (fraternity) which enables sharing at a deep level. There is always the support of the prayers of each other.
Currently the Irish National responsible is Canon Niall Ahern, St Patrick’s, Strandhill, Co Sligo (Elphin). A delegation of about 12 Irish fraternity members is to attend the Canonisation Ceremony in Saint Peter’s Square on 15th May 2022 including John McEvoy.
Blessings on all priests associated with the Jesus Caritas Priests’ Fraternity at this special time of the canonisation of their founder.