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Evangelising in a Desert

Well-meaning people sometimes say, to ease disappointment from an unfulfilled hope, that ‘results aren’t important’. Common sense, however, tells us that the importance of something extends to what happens to it. So someone who attempts an important task will want it to succeed, and someone who loses a valuable possession will rejoice in its recovery. Our Lord confirmed this.[1] He does not want any soul to be lost, and came into the world to avert such losses,[2] so results in that context certainly matter to Him. The parable of the prodigal son[3] illustrates God’s immense, joyous mercy when sinful mistakes are repented.

Results are often beyond the control of people who strive for them. The number of such people and the receptivity of their ‘audience’ were mentioned by Our Lord:[4] a shortage of ‘labourers’ and seemingly-poor ‘soil’ can deter effort.

Such considerations may ‘strike a chord’ among people who recognise the applicability to current circumstances. An event which provides interesting food for thought was the canonisation of Charles de Foucauld (15th May 2022).

His youth and young adulthood were replete with indications that he would not ‘make much’ of himself. The process of remedial transformation began when he was on military duty in North Africa, where he became impressed by local people’s strict regime of prayer and their unwavering submission to the will of God.

St Charles de Foucauld

While back in France, he developed a strong urge to make lengthy visits to churches, and (aged 28) became reconciled with the Church, from which he had drifted in his early teens. He spent years discerning his vocation by living in Trappist monasteries, studying in Rome, and then years living as a manual worker in Nazareth. He decided that he should become a priest, and was ordained in France at the age of forty-two. He wanted his way of life to resemble as closely as possible the hidden life which Our Lord had lived in Nazareth, and to live it not in the Holy Land but among people of Morocco and Algeria, whom he believed to be the most abandoned of all – specifically because there were almost no priests for them.   

He resolved to minister to French Foreign Legion garrisons, but otherwise to live indistinguishably from the native populations; he would not even mention to them Christianity, but hope that his benign demeanour and practical kindness would be an effective method of evangelisation.

Exactly the same idea seems to be popular today in countries which have incrementally cast aside overtly-Christian principles as the basis of culture, law, public policy, and even publicly-expressed belief. Orchestrated outcries of condemnation tend to follow disagreement with this or that symptom of secularism, and religious people tend to take refuge in ambiguities, platitudes, or silence. Probably many portray this (to themselves and to others) as ‘prudence’. Paragraph 1806 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” shows that prudence is discernment of the right means by which to achieve our true good, and points out that “It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.”

Charles de Foucauld’s ‘low profile’ evangelisation was reminiscent of an experiment which John Wesley was “often and earnestly pressed to do.” It was to keep silent about “the things of God.” He tried it while travelling from London to Leicester. The results were that except for a few words at the start of the journey he spoke to nobody; fell asleep after an hour or two; and everyone behaved respectfully to him, “as to a civil, good-natured gentleman.” Reporters of this experiment commented that as in Wesley’s day the world will tolerate a Christian who is content to behave as ‘a civil and good-natured gentleman’ – who is indeed too gentlemanly to mention radical differences between his beliefs and those of his secular friends.[5]  St. Paul told the Romans not to be “conformed to this world,” but to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.”[6] It is, however, common to find Christians who argue for conforming to the world, being transformed by it “until they are indistinguishable from the secularists among whom they live.”[7]

The world in 1969, wrote Lunn and Lean,[8] was not unlike the pre-Christian Rome whose people St. Paul addressed. The cultural challenge is now even more gigantic. Charles de Foucauld faced similarly daunting odds, which probably had an effect on his decision about strategy. Another influential factor seems to have been expectation that inhabitants of North Africa would be no more receptive than people in France to overt preaching of an alien message.

So ‘living’ differently replaced open ‘preaching’ (although he did learn, and wrote literature in, the Tuareg language). Amid endemic violence, lying, sexual immorality and infanticide, he offered alms, own-grown food, mediation between disputants, and liberation of slaves. His way of opposing slavery was to pay ransom-money to slave-owners. That, however, sat uncomfortably with a rule which forbade French soldiers in North Africa to interfere with local lifestyles, and went against the advice of long-established (though comparatively-small-scale) missionaries that it would fail.

According to an elegantly-written and scholarly biographical essay, “Slavery is a stubborn plant in Africa,” “the institution of slavery was too entrenched and French influence too weak” for abolition to be possible, and therefore attempts to stamp it out “could do little good and much harm.”[9] Similar comments are made by advocates of a ‘low-key’ response (in effect, a non-response) to evils which have become ‘normal’ parts of modern life. Foucauld “was the first European, and the last for a long time, seriously to try introducing basic human decency into a widespread cultural evil.”[10] Make a list of the widespread cultural evils which today are so “entrenched” that they remain undisturbed by “too weak” remedial influence. Foucauld believed that France’s prohibition of slavery in France but surrender to it in North Africa brought shame; he said that the indigenous people, recognising this inconsistency, despised the French for allowing fear of adverse reaction to deter an attempt to abolish slavery in North Africa.[11] The secularists who have had such success in modern times were not deterred by fear of adverse reaction; on the contrary, such fear seems common among the vanquished. To how many of the evils in your list does that apply?

Foucauld may have been right to expect that people will ‘warm’ to a benign manner which seems to wish simply to support rather than to change them. Barack Obama, discussing practical improvements which in the previous thirty years had occurred in the positions and prospects of minorities in America, especially of the black minority, wrote that “In general, members of every minority group continue to be measured largely by the degree of…assimilation – how closely speech patterns, dress, or demeanor conform to the dominant…culture – and the more that a minority strays from these external markers, the more he or she is subject to negative assumptions.”[12] Although Foucauld seems to have ‘assimilated’ very well with the local people and avoided “negative assumptions” almost entirely, he was saddened that he was “so wretched and bearing so little fruit.”[13] Regrettably “[t]here were no conversions”; “the entrenched ways of the nomads stopped any evangelization efforts dead,” and he “realized that the more than thousand years since the Muslim conquest of North Africa would not be moved by him or anyone else for centuries.”[14]

Just over a century since his death, much of the wider world has been conquered by relativism, and the “internal deserts” of which newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI spoke,[15] show themselves in ever-more- extensive visible evidence. The situation has developed differently from the one encountered by Foucauld, but it seems just as bleak. So people who think about evangelism today need to ask themselves whether to do as he did, or to be ‘pro-active’.

Lunn and Lean believed that although conversions can come from concrete kindness as well as from intellectual advocacy, “Christianity conquered the Roman world because its missionaries…were passionately anxious to persuade.” Communism’s effects around the world arose because most Communists “[took] the opportunity to state the case for Communism. The theory that you actually damage your case by stating it was left to Christians to develop.”[16] A related problem is, of course, that many Christians seem to believe that Christianity can make ‘progress’ if it is changed to make it acceptable to its opponents.[17]

The odds against Charles de Foucauld ensured that “his efforts left little mark on the situation” in North Africa.[18] Rearguard actions elsewhere have suffered successive emphatic defeats, which with the passage of time become increasingly resistant even to mere criticism. Attempts to reverse such defeats seem to have been rare and unsuccessful (except for the U.S. Supreme Court’s overruling – in 2022 – of Roe v. Wade, and for Bermuda’s Parliamentary overruling – with effect from 1st June 2018 – of a judicial ‘green light’ for same-sex ‘marriage’).

Far from Pope St. John XXIII’s expectation of “the rising of a new day, a radiant dawn for the Catholic Church,”[19] “We can but desire in our day to keep alive the lamp of truth in the sepulchre of this world till a brighter era.”[20]

[1] Mt. 18:12-13; Lk. 15:3-10.

[2] Jn. 3:17; 12:47; Lk. 19:10.

[3] Lk. 15:11-32; summarised beautifully in paragraph 1439 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

[4] Mt. 9:37; Lk. 10:2; Mt. 13:3-23; Mk. 4:3-20; Lk. 8:4-15.

[5] “Christian Counter-Attack,” A. Lunn & G. Lean; Blandford Press Ltd., 1969; Catholic Book Club edition, 1970, p.1-2.

[6] Rom. 12:2.

[7] “Christian Counter-Attack,” op. cit., p.77-78.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century,” Robert Royal; The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York; 2000, p.99-100.

[10] Ibid., p.100.  

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The Audacity of Hope;” Canongate Books Ltd.; BBC Audiobooks Ltd., large print edition, 2008, p.288-289.

[13] “The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century,” op. cit., p.101.

[14] Ibid., p.103-104. 

[15] 24th April 2005, at his first Mass as Pope.

[16] “Christian Counter-Attack,” op. cit., p.1.

[17] Ibid., p.3.

[18] “The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century,” op. cit., p.100.

[19] “Journal of a Soul,” Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1965; p.372.

[20] “How To Accomplish It,” St. John Henry Newman, in “Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects,” published by Basil Montagu Pickering, 1872, at p.41.

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