Fr. Shields’ trip to Rome: Canonization of St. Charles de Foucauld

“Father, I abandon myself into your hands.”

I went on a pilgrimage to Rome to witness the canonization of St. Charles De Foucauld on May 15.

I want to thank Archbishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M., for sponsoring my travels to celebrate the canonization of St. Foucauld. The archbishop knew how important this event was for me and the 43 years of priesthood the Lord has given me. St. Foucauld’s abandonment prayer was on my ordination card on June 4, 1979, and the stylized sacred heart and cross of Jesu Caritas were sown on my ordination vestments by my mother. 

Let me share a little about this saint and how he entered my life and how he has been my inspiration for these years. I will then share some highlights of the pilgrimage to Rome during the canonization.  

St. Foucauld, born in 1858 in France, grew up spoiled by his grandfather after he was orphaned at an early age. He lived a hedonistic youth and adulterous lifestyle in the army. He was then sent to Algeria at the age of 22, and he later left the army and mapped out northern Africa for the National Geographic Society, which won him great praise. During his time in Africa, he was especially touched by the faithful prayers of Muslims he met. 

After returning to France, under the guidance of his cousin who was constantly praying for his conversion, he met Abbe Huvelin, the Bishop Fulton Sheen of his time. He deeply repented to Huvelin and was received back in the Catholic Church which he left many years before.  

“As soon as I believed that there was a God, I understood that I could do no other than to live for Him. My religious vocation dates from the same hour as my faith. God is so great,” Foucauld said in a letter to Henry de Castries, his former companion from Pont-à-Mousson, on August 14, 1901, which was shared on the Catholic Counter-Reformation website.

He always desired to draw closer to Jesus, that was his vocation. Little Sister Magdeleine, who founded the Little Sisters of Jesus in 1939 after the Little Brothers, often said if you want to know Brother Charles, forget him and get to know Jesus; then you will know who he is. 

My favorite icon is of St. Foucauld beside Jesus pointing to him. He wanted to live like Jesus, first by being a simple gardener in Nazareth, then becoming a monk and priest for 7 years in a poor Trappist monastery in Syria, and finally as a missionary in the south Sahara Desert. There he found his heart for the people of the Tuareg. He wanted to preach the gospel from the rooftop of his life, and become a universal brother to all. 

The greatest bible passage sewn on the inside of his cassock was John 12:24, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a seed, but if it dies it produces much fruit.”  Then he added, “be prepared to become a martyr today.” He later died in Tamanrasset, Algeria, by the bullet of a young tribesman in 1916. 

Pope Francis said it must please the Lord to see men and women imitate St. Foucauld along “the path of littleness, humility, and solidarity with the poor.” 

I first learned about this saint while still in seminary when I read the book “Seeds of the Desert: The Legacy of Charles de Foucauld,” a spiritual biography written by Fr. René Voillaume, who founded the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1933.  His freedom to follow Jesus without compromise touched my heart deeply. 

I left the seminary for a while after receiving a master’s in theology and lived in a Catholic community called L’Arche, which worked with handicapped people. During this time, Brother Charles called to me as I lived for some months in Detroit with the Little Brothers of Jesus, but I realized the vocation was not for me. I later became ordained and he called to me again, so a group of priests and I formed a priestly fraternity called Jesu Caritas.  Priests living the life of fraternity challenge each other to see where Christ is calling them. My two dearest brothers are still in this with me, Father Dan Hebert and Bishop Michael Warfel. 

Later, 10 years after my ordination, I was called again by St. Foucauld to live in the Siberian desert like him, where the nearest priest was thousands of miles away. I was called to simply do what he did: love the Lord in the eucharist, spend deep time in poustinia prayer (hermitage), and treat everyone as a brother. 

In my sabbatical year after 30 years as a priest, I traced his footsteps into the Sahara, living in the village of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria, and I prayed in his hermitage in the high Sahara Desert, 9,000 feet above sea level in the Hoggar Mountains. I left after a month when it became dangerous during the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. 

In this file photo from 1991 is the hermitage Saint Charles de Foucauld resided in during his time on the Hoggar Mountains of the Sahara Desert. (Courtesy of Father Michael Shields)

St. Foucauld continues to be present in my current exile from Russia. He guides me through the prayer of abandonment, “Father, I abandon myself into your hands do with me what you will.” On his alarm clock, he wrote “now is the hour to love God.” So, I do the same every hour until the end of my life. 

Before enjoying my pilgrimage to Rome, I asked Father Joseph McGilloway where I should go to pray while in Rome since he studied there.  He recommended that I go to the catacombs, especially the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, where the early praying church can be found. 

After my visit, I prayed for peace for my Slavic brothers and sisters before the relics of Saints Cyril and Methodius that rest in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome. I then went to greet the Little Sisters of Jesus and in the mother house of Tre Fontane. To much joy and excitement, when I said I was from Alaska, one Little Sister mentioned she had been to Alaska; in fact, we had met in Cooper Landing.

I spent the rest of the day in prayer in the very chapel of St. Foucauld, which was rebuilt with his drawings, tabernacle, and bench inside the Little Sisters’ chapel. 

I also visited every major basilica and found each had a blessed sacrament chapel where I could do my holy hour each day of my pilgrimage.

The May 15 canonization was a gathering of such joy with 10 new saints, but I sensed the majority came for Brother Charles. I met some Little Brothers and some priests that are responsible for the fraternity of Jesu Caritas. Such a joy it was to be with them. The universal church was there from every continent. Brother Charles’ family has grown with little and large communities reflecting this little missionary priest.  Contemplatives, beggars, lay, and clergy shared this vocation to grow closer to Jesus. 

Artwork of St. Charles de Foucauld and Jesus Christ. (Courtesy of Fr. Michael Shields)

I made a good confession in the Sistine chapel when an African priest asked if anyone wanted to confess. There at the bottom of the mural of Michelangelo’s last judgment, I went on my knees and made a serious confession. Imagine looking up at the Lord in the last judgment; it was breathtakingly beautiful and sobering. 

To end the pilgrimage, I decided to pray for three days in Assisi and spend each day on one of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. On my way, I found a woman in need of help in the subway, so I stopped to help but found that my wallet had disappeared. On that first day, I entered into a meditation of poverty with only a few euros left.

I later returned to Alaska with renewed hope that I can, in a small way, live what St. Foucauld lived simply as an abandonment to the will of the Father. So, I end the pilgrimage as it began. Father, I abandon myself into your hands, do with me what you will and whatever you do I thank you.


'Fr. Shields’ trip to Rome: Canonization of St. Charles de Foucauld'
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