The Pope greeted a group of Tuareg desert nomads in St Peter’s Basilica Nov. 13, using the occassion to invoke the “universal brotherhood” of all the world’s peoples. The ten Tuareg visitors, dressed in blue and white robes and turbans, were in the Vatican to pay tribute to Charles de Foucauld, a French Catholic missionary who lived among their people in the early years of the 20th century.
De Foucauld, who learned the Tuareg language and translated many of their poems, was beatified that day at a solemn ceremony in the Vatican. Beatification earns a person the title “blessed” and is the penultimate rung of the ladder to sainthood.
Pope Benedict greeted each of the Tuareg visitors individually. One of them kissed his hand.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who presided over the beatification, praised de Foucauld as a model Christian among people of another faith, without trying to force conversions. Vatican analysts say the Catholic Church sees this aspect of his life as a model which has special importance today.
De Foucauld (1858-1916) was an officer in a French light cavalry regiment as a young man, and had his first contact with the Tuareg during exploratory missions in Algeria and Morocco.
After a period living in Trappist monasteries in Palestine and Malta, in 1905 he began his life as a solitary missionary living near the Tamanrasset oasis in the Hoggar mountains of Algeria. He wrote a dictionary of the Tuareg language and translated some Christian texts into it.
Despite his dedication to Tuareg culture, he failed to produce any conversions. He was killed by bandits in Tamanrasset during an anti-French uprising in 1916.
Two other people were beatified that day: the nuns Maria Pia Mastena, founder of the Sisters of the Holy Face, and Maria Crocefissa Curcio, founder of the Congregation of Carmelite Missionaries of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. (ANSA, ZENIT, Nov. 13)
De Foucauld was born to a noble family in Strasbourg, but renounced wealth upon his conversion. Those who were influenced or inspired by Foucauld include Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement; Thomas Merton; Jacques Maritain; and John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me. (National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 11)
In between his resignation from the army and his conversion, he explored Morocco and Algeria, disguised as the Jewish servant of a rabbi. On his return to France he wrote a book about his travels for which he received a gold medal from the geography society of Paris.
These wanderings were apparently a turning point in his life. He later credited the piety of the Sahara’s Muslims as an inspiration to his own conversion, even though he returned to the Christianity of his youth. (Malta Independent, Nov. 13)
See also the Charles de Foucauld memorial website.