The prophetic voice of Cardinal Robert Sarah

Jared Staudt

Pope St. John XXIII sought to initiate a new period of optimistic engagement with the modern world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He spoke of opening the windows of the Church, seeking to move beyond the entrenched position reacting against modern secular society. Pope St. Paul VI would later describe the purpose of Vatican II as evangelization, but what followed the Council led to the dark clouds of the modern world’s confusion entering in through those open windows. False understandings of freedom, a mundane approach to liturgy, and politically motivated disputes have blown in with those clouds, while more and more Catholics have stopped practicing the faith.

Even as some Church leaders continue to advance a naively optimistic approach to our secular culture, one voice has arisen to counter this approach and to point us back to the truth and beauty of the Gospel and the Church’s life. Cardinal Robert Sarah released the third installment of his trilogy of interview books, The Day Is Now Far Spent (in conversation with Nicholas Diat, Ignatius Press, 2019). The first volume, God or Nothing, related the Cardinal’s amazing life, beginning with his baptism from paganism as a young boy, his study in a French colonial seminary, becoming Archbishop of the capital of his native Guinea in his early 30s under an oppressive dictatorship, and his later work at the Vatican. The Power of Silence reflected on a crucial topic for our culture, the need to withdraw from the omnipresence of technology to be able to listen to God’s voice in silence.

The Day Is Now Far Spent begins by explaining the crisis of faith that has led to a larger crisis within the Church. Cardinal Sarah explains that “the crisis that the Church is experiencing is much deeper [than problems with a business]; it is like a cancer eating away at the body from within … In large sectors of the Church, we have lost the sense of God’s objectivity. Each individual starts from his subjective experience and creates for himself a religion that suits him” (88). Over and against a “veritable cacophony [that] reigns in the teachings of pastors, bishops, and priests” which has led to “confusion, ambiguity, and apostasy,” the Cardinal calls Catholics “to receive the Church’s teaching with a spirit of discipleship, with docility and humility” (91; 92).

Following from putting God first through faith, Cardinal Sarah invites the Church to recover a sense of the sacred. He quotes Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) that “the renewal of the liturgy is the fundamental prerequisite for the renewal of the Church” (111). He comments on this passage: “I humbly beg bishops, priests, and the people of God to care more for the sacred liturgy, to put God at the center of it, to ask Jesus Christ once again to teach us to pray. We have desacralized the Eucharistic celebration” (ibid.). The liturgy should be the place to encounter God and to enter into a contemplative union with him. He unites the crisis of the liturgy to the broader crisis of culture: The West “no longer weeps with gratitude before the Cross; it no longer trembles in amazement before the Blessed Sacrament. I think that men need to be astonished in order to adore, to praise, to thank this God who is so good and so great. Wisdom begins with wonder, Socrates said. The inability to wonder is the sign of a civilization that is dying” (127).

Sarah documents at great length the death of Western culture. “I am convinced,” he relates, “that Western civilization is going through a lethal crisis. It has reached the limits of self-destructive hatred” (158). This requires that the Church awaken to preserve “what is most human in man. She is the guardian of civilization” (ibid.). He exhorts the Church to defend the goodness of creation and human nature, as well as the family. He also returns to the theme of his previous book, the need to fight against the distraction of technology and to enter into the interior life where God can be found. “Modern man neglects his interior life so much that he longer knows what it means. He is submerged in the mud of passions, preoccupied with musing himself and enjoying all the pleasures of the world” (251).

Despite his challenging words on the crisis of the Church and the world, ultimately Sarah offers inspiration for renewal: “We must burn with a love for our faith. We must not tarnish it or dilute it in worldly compromises … The day when we no longer burn with love for our faith, the world will die of cold, deprived of its most precious good. It is up to us to defend and to proclaim this faith!” (324).

COMING UP: Why did the Wall fall, 30 years ago?

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November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the peaceful breach of the Berlin Wall — the symbolic high point of the Revolution of 1989, which would be completed seven weeks later by the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime and Vaclav Havel’s election as that country’s president. A few days before the actual anniversary, German foreign minister Haiko Maas penned a brief essay on the reasons why the Wall came down, which was striking for what Mr. Mass didn’t mention.

He did not mention NATO steadfastness against a vast Soviet campaign of agitation and propaganda over western military modernization in the 1980s.

He did not mention President Ronald Reagan or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — he didn’t even mention West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

From my point of view, however, the most glaring omission in Mr. Maas’s essay was his complete lack of attention to the pivotal figure in the Revolution of 1989, Pope St. John Paul II. Just as oddly, the foreign minister neglected to mention the moral revolution — the revolution of conscience — that John Paul II helped ignite and that gave the Revolution of 1989 its unique human texture. This is bad history. And bad history always raises warning flags about the future.

Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University is America’s most distinguished historian of the Cold War. He is not a Catholic, so he could not be accused of special pleading or sectarian bias in writing that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” My friendly amendment would be to note (as the Polish pope did) that a lot had been happening in east central Europe before John Paul’s June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland; so the Pope did not so much begin, as he did accelerate, the process of dismantling European communism through an effective nonviolent resistance based on the assertion of basic human rights. And he did that in part by giving the Catholic components of the resistance new courage, rooted in the conviction that “Rome” now had their backs (as it hadn’t in the 1970s).

But I will happily accept Professor Gaddis’s citation of June 2, 1979, as a signal moment in this process. What happened that day? Unbelievably, after more than 30 years of communist repression, a pope from behind the iron curtain celebrated Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. And during that hitherto unimaginable event, a vast crowd chanted, “We want God! We want God!”

That dramatic scene was the curtain-raiser on nine days of national renewal in which John Paul, in dozens of speeches and addresses, never mentioned politics or economics once and ignored the Polish communist government completely. Rather, he played numerous variations on one great theme: “You are not who they say you are. Remember who you are — reclaim the truth about yourselves as a nation formed by a Christian history and a vital faith — and you will eventually discover tools of resistance that communism cannot match.” The demand for religious freedom, in other words, was at the center of the John Paul II-inspired Solidarity movement in Poland, even as it became an increasingly prominent part of the human rights resistance to communism in Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Getting this history straight is important, not just as a matter of intellectual hygiene but for the future. Public officials who do not grasp the centrality of religious freedom to the collapse of European communism and the emergence of new democracies in central and eastern Europe are unlikely to appreciate the centrality of religious freedom to free and virtuous 21st-century societies and to 21st-century democracy. It is a sadness to note that Foreign Minister Maas is not alone in his ignorance, and in what one fears may be his insouciance about the first freedom.

A few days before the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down, former Irish president Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin. Did she celebrate her Church’s role in liberating a continent? No. Instead, she made the bizarre claim that infant baptism and the consequent obligation of parents to raise their baptized children in the faith may violate the U.N.’s Covenant on the Rights of the Child.

Hard to believe, but true — and an urgent reminder that bad history makes for bad public policy.

Featured image by Raphaël Thiémard | Wikicommons