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In his catechesis on apostolic zeal Pope Francis reflects on Saint Charles de Foucauld

An apostolate of meekness a prophecy for our time

 An apostolate of meekness a prophecy for our time  ING-042
20 October 2023

At the General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square on Wednesday, 18 October, Pope Francis continued his series of catecheses on apostolic zeal, this week reflecting on the life of Saint Charles de Foucauld, who drew on his deep relationship with God to become a brother to all. The following is a translation of the Holy Father’s words which he shared in Italian.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Good morning!

Let us continue in our encounter with some Christian witnesses, rich in zeal for proclaiming the Gospel. Apostolic zeal, the zeal for proclamation: we are looking at some Christians who have been an example of this apostolic zeal. Today I would like to talk to you about a man who made Jesus and his poorest brothers and sisters his life passion. I am referring to Saint Charles de Foucauld, who “drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all” (Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, 286).

And what was the “secret” of Charles de Foucauld, of his life? After living his youth being distant from God, without believing in anything other than the disordered pursuit of pleasure, he confides this to a non-believing friend, to whom, after having converted by accepting the grace of God’s forgiveness in Confession, he reveals the reason of his life. He writes: “I have lost my heart to Jesus of Nazareth”.1 Brother Charles thus reminds us that the first step in evangelizing is to have Jesus inside one’s heart; it is to “fall head over heels” for him. If this does not happen, we can hardly show it with our lives. Instead, we risk talking about ourselves, the group to which we belong, a morality or, even worse, a set of rules, but not about Jesus, his love, his mercy. I see this in some new movements that are emerging: they talk about their vision of humanity, they talk about their spirituality and they feel theirs is a new path… But why do you not talk about Jesus? They talk about many things, about organization, about spiritual journeys, but they do not know how to talk about Jesus. I think that today it would be good for each one of us to ask him or herself: “Do I have Jesus at the centre of my heart? Have I ‘lost my head’ a bit for Jesus?”.

Charles had, to the extent that he went from attraction to Jesus to imitation of Jesus. Advised by his confessor, he goes to the Holy Land to visit the places where the Lord lived and to walk where the Master walked. In particular, it is in Nazareth that he realises he must be formed in Christ’s teachings. He experiences an intense relationship with the Lord, spends long hours reading the Gospels, and feels like His little brother. And as he gets to know Jesus, the desire to make Jesus known arises in him. It always happens like this. When one of us gets to know Jesus better, the desire to make him known, to share this treasure, arises. In his commentary on the account of Our Lady’s visit to Saint Elizabeth, He makes him say: I have given myself to the world... take me to the world. Yes, but how is this done? Like Mary did in the mystery of the Visitation: “in silence, by example, by life”.2 With one’s life, because “our entire existence”, writes Brother Charles, “must shout the Gospel”.3 And very often our existence shouts worldly things, it calls out many stupid things, strange things, and he says: No, “all our existence must shout the Gospel”.

He then decides to settle in distant regions to cry out the Gospel in silence, living in the spirit of Nazareth, in poverty and concealment. He goes to the Sahara Desert, among non-Christians, and he goes there as a friend and a brother, bearing the meekness of Jesus the Eucharist. Charles lets Jesus act silently, convinced that “Eucharistic life” evangelizes. Indeed, he believes that Christ is the first evangelizer. And so he remains in prayer at Jesus’ feet, before the Tabernacle, for a dozen hours a day, certain that the evangelizing power resides there and feeling that it is Jesus who brings him close to so many distant brothers. And do we, I ask myself, believe in the power of the Eucharist? Does our going out to others, our service, find its beginning and its fulfilment there, in adoration? I am convinced that we have lost the sense of adoration: we must regain it, starting with us, consecrated people, bishops, priests, religious sisters and all consecrated persons: “wasting” time before the tabernacle, regaining the sense of adoration.

Charles de Foucauld wrote: “Every Christian, then, must become an apostle”,4 and he reminds a friend that “close to priests we need laypeople who see what the priest does not see, who evangelize with a closeness of charity, with a kindness for all, with an affection always ready to give of itself ”.5 Holy laypeople, not climbers. And those laypeople — that layman, that laywoman — who are in love with Jesus, make the priest understand that he is not an official, that he is a mediator, a priest. How we priests need to have beside us these laypeople who truly believe, and who show us the way by their witness. Charles de Foucauld, with this experience, foreshadows the times of Vatican Council ii ; he intuits the importance of the laity and understands that the proclamation of the Gospel is up to the entire People of God. But how can we increase this participation? The way Charles de Foucauld did: by kneeling and welcoming the action of the Spirit, who always inspires new ways to engage, meet, listen and dialogue, always in collaboration and trust, always in communion with the Church and pastors.

Saint Charles de Foucauld, a figure who is a prophecy for our time, bore witness to the beauty of communicating the Gospel through the apostolate of meekness: considering himself a “universal brother” and welcoming everyone, he shows us the evangelizing power of meekness, of tenderness. Let us not forget that God’s style is summarized in three words: closeness, compassion and tenderness. God is always near, he is always compassionate, he is always tender. And Christian witness must take this road: of closeness, compassion and tenderness. And this is how he was, meek and tender. He wanted everyone he met to see, through his goodness, the goodness of Jesus. Indeed, he used to say he was a “servant to someone much better than I”.6 Living Jesus’ goodness led him to forge fraternal bonds of friendship with the poor, with the Tuareg, with those furthest from his mentality. Gradually these bonds generated fraternity, inclusion, appreciation of the other’s culture. Goodness is simple and asks us to be simple people, who are not afraid to offer a smile. And with his smile, with his simplicity, Brother Charles bore witness to the Gospel. Never by proselytism, never: by witness. One does not evangelize by proselytism, but by witness, by attraction.

So lastly, let us ask ourselves whether we carry within us and to others, Christian joy, Christian meekness, Christian tenderness, Christian compassion, Christian closeness. Thank you.

Special Greetings

I extend a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially the groups from Ireland, Norway, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Canada and the United States of America. I offer a special greeting to the university students taking part in the Rome International Seminar for Peace. I also greet the priests of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education of the Pontifical North American College. Upon all of you I invoke the joy and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God bless you!

Next Sunday is World Missionary Day, whose theme is “Burning hearts, feet on a journey”. I urge dioceses, parishes, all communities to participate actively in this important annual appointment with prayer and concrete support for the needs of the Church’s evangelizing mission.

Lastly I greet young people, the elderly, the sick and newlyweds. Today is the feast of Saint Luke. His Gospel reminds us that the Church’s mission is possible only if we know how to be very united with God in prayer and completely willing to place ourselves in his hands. Brothers and sisters, please, let us continue to pray for peace, and let us not forget battered Ukraine, of which nothing is being said now, but where the tragedy continues.

I give my blessing to all of you.

1  Lettres à un ami de lycée. Correspondance avec Gabriel Tourdes (1874-915), Paris 2010, 161.

2  Crier l’Evangile, Montrouge 2004, 49.

3  M/314 in C. de Foucauld , La bonté de Dieu. Méditations sur les Saints Evangiles (1), Montrouge 2002, 285.

4  Letter to Joseph Hours, in Correspondances lyonnaises (1904-1916), Paris 2005, 92.

5  Ivi, 90.

6  Carnets de Tamanrasset (1905-1916), Paris 1986, 188.