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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.