On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he heard a call to follow Jesus in his life at Nazareth. He gave all his possessions to his sister and spent seven years as a Trappist monk, first in France and then at Akbès in Syria. He studied briefly in Rome, and later began to lead a life of prayer and adoration, alone, near a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth.
Ordained a priest at 43, on June 9, 1901, he left for the Sahara, living at first in Beni Abbès. He wanted to be among those who were “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He wanted all who drew close to him to find in him “a universal brother.” In fact, he set out to found a community of Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was not until 1906 that someone joined the community, but the man left shortly after becoming ill.
In 1902, he drew the attention of friends and the authorities to the tragedy of slavery and ransomed several slaves.
In 1905 he moved to be among the Tamanrasset in the Hoggar and learned their language. No priest had gone into their territory before. He began to translate the Gospel for them.
Charles began to learn the Tuareg language, songs and poetry in 1907. Being the only Christian there, he was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. But he choose to remain, for the sake of the people. After six months, he received permission to celebrate Mass alone, but not to reserve the Blessed Sacrament.
Early in 1908, he fell ill and came close to death. The Tuaregs saved his life by sharing the little goat’s milk they had left, even though it was a period of drought. Charles, helpless, depended on his neighbors.
In 1909, he wrote, “My apostolate must be the apostolate of goodness. In seeing me, people should say to one another: ‘Since this man is so good, his religion must be good.‘”
Between 1909 and 1913, he made three visits to France to present his plan for a “Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart,” an association for the conversion of unbelievers. He envisioned it as consisting of “fervent Christians from all walks of life, able to make known, through their example, what the Christian religion is, and to make the Gospel ‘seen’ in their lives.”
As war raged in Europe, and Charles remained in Tamanrasset, there was unrest in the desert, including raids by Moroccans and Senoussites from Libya. To protect the local people, Charles built a small fort in Tamanrasset and moved in, waiting to receive the people from the surrounding area in case of danger. On Dec. 1, 1916, some Tuaregs, under Senoussite influence, lured him outside the fort and bound him. During the looting, there was an unexpected warning that soldiers were coming. There was panic. A shot was fired and Charles was killed.
He was 58.
His body was buried in a ditch that surrounded the fort. At the time of his death, Charles was alone. But in France, 49 people had joined the Union of Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which he had succeeded in having approved by the religious authorities.
Charles de Foucauld had always dreamed of sharing his vocation with others and came to the conclusion that the “life of Nazareth” could be led by all. According to the Vatican, the “spiritual family of Charles de Foucauld” today encompasses several associations of the faithful, religious communities and secular institutes for both lay people and priests.