In the run-up to the forthcoming canonisation of Charles de Foucauld on May 15th I was asked to write an article on his influence on missionary thinking, spirituality and practice for the Dutch language periodical Tijdschrift voor Geestelijk Leven. What follows is a two part translation into English. F.E.
Like most missionaries of my generation – I am 79 – I have had the opportunity to work actively as a missionary for many years (mainly in Africa) in basic pastoral care, education, missionary training and – visiting colleagues as a member of the General Council of my congregation – as a privileged observer of our contemporary ‘acts of the apostles’. The highlight was undoubtedly the experience in Congo of the transition from a Church led by foreign missionaries to a vibrant community with its own African face. More and more, as I walk in “God’s vineyard,” I have come to see, like Charles de Foucauld, that the Spirit is always active, everywhere, long before the arrival of any missionary. Everywhere is holy ground. The slow gaze of a contemplative heart detects a hidden presence.
Back in the Netherlands some ten years ago, I continue to search with eyes full of wonder for signs of the always hidden Presence in our secularized landscape. An unprecedented missionary challenge. My current job as administrator of a daily blog on my congregation’s website keeps me alert to developments in church and society worldwide.
With the passing of the years, the desire for quiet lingering also grows in order to create openness for what presents itself, but is not readily available. A contemplative eye and a listening ear for the Mystery that surrounds us. To live in such a way that the world in which I live with the others acquires a face in which people can see the face of God. Is that perhaps the ultimate mission of the missionary – monk in me?
The North African Church of the Visitation.
The minuscule Christian communities in the Islamic north of Africa rightly see themselves as the direct heirs of ‘their’ monk-missionary. In Algeria, preparations for the celebration of Charles de Foucauld’s canonization are well on the way. Besides the planned publications and activities, for our purposes here, it is particularly interesting to see how the local Church situates itself in relation to the missionary world of Charles de Foucauld.
The Church leadership sees the run-up to the canonization as a precious opportunity to rediscover its own vocation to be a “Church of Nazareth, of relationship and encounter” by renewing its own familiarity with the thirty years of Jesus’ hidden life.
Bishop Nicolas Lhernould of Constantine: “The situation in which we find ourselves makes it ever clearer that we are not called to stand out, but to allow ourselves to be welcomed. We are here primarily to be received, to be welcomed. And Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever receives you receives me”.
The visitation – the visit of pregnant Mary to her cousin Elisabeth, who is also pregnant – is a fertile source of inspiration and a kind of missionary paradigm. The North African Church proudly bears the honorary title of ‘Church of the Visitation’.
In a pastoral letter ‘Serviteurs de l’Espérance’ published earlier, in 2014, this is reflected on in a particularly penetrating way:
The two women each carry a new life, and it is precisely their meeting and the words of Elisabeth that liberate the ‘Magnificat’ from Mary’s mouth.
“In our experience, something similar is happening,” says Mgr Lhernould. “Every day we come into contact with the lives of our Muslim friends who are often completely unfamiliar with the Gospel, but it is precisely in this encounter that our lives can freely let our own ‘Magnificat’ well up.
On occasion, these meetings lead to concrete action. Hand in hand with Muslim friends, help is provided to the most vulnerable in society in a spirit of concrete brotherhood. It is a service that holds a venerable pedigree.
Charles de Foucauld, for example, wrote to Louis Massignon in mid-1916, six months before his tragic death: “I believe that there is no passage in the Gospel that has more impressed me than this: ‘All that you have done for one of these little ones, you have done for me’”.
Fons Eppink mhm