Ignatius Press has sent me From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, written in collaboration by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert, Cardinal Sarah. There has been some controversy over the nature of the joint authorship of this book. Reading it, what comes across is the close fraternal friendship between these two holy men at the top of the hierarchy, and the spiritual affinity of their thoughts on the priesthood.
According to the introduction, the authors exchanged “texts, thoughts and proposals” from the late summer of 2019 – clearly anticipating the October Synod on Amazonia, when the possibility of a married clergy would be raised. They chose to publish their correspondence following the example of St Augustine who, as they quote, once wrote: “I cannot be silent…I bear in mind that I will give an account to the prince of all pastors [Christ] about the sheep entrusted to me.” This gives urgency to their writing, a sense that they feel compelled to explain and defend the nature of the priesthood and why celibacy has been intrinsic to it since the earliest centuries.
Pope Benedict’s is the first essay, “The Catholic Priesthood”. As befitting a theologian, he reflects on the historical nature of the ministerial priesthood, the difference between the hereditary priesthood of the Old Testament and the calling or vocation of the New; how, following Christ, a priest’s “entire life is in contact with the divine mysteries” – thus making an authentic matrimonial bond impossible.
Cardinal Sarah, who often quotes Benedict in his own essay, “Loving to the End” writes as a pastor addressing his fellow priests rather than as a theologian. In the eloquent, passionate and rhetorical style with which readers who have read his long interview-length books will be familiar, he reminds us that a priest is “a man who offers himself as a sacrifice through love.” Seen through this lens celibacy is not an intolerable burden, but a conscious sacrifice in imitation of Christ. Sarah is clear that “He who has not given himself totally to God is not given perfectly to his brethren.”
Sarah also responds to those who have suggested that remote communities deprived of the Sacraments – such as in Amazonia – should be served by married priests. He relates that when, as a young priest, he visited such communities in his native Guinea, communities which had been cut off from their pastors for a decade through government persecution, he was greeted with joy by people who had been catechised and prepared for reception of the Sacraments: “With the instinct of faith, poor people know that a priest who has renounced marriage gives them the gift of all his spousal love.” Lay catechists also play an important community role in the African Church.
The Cardinal gives short shrift to those who say tribal peoples cannot understand celibacy; and referring to the ex-Anglican married priests in this country in recent times, he points out that this has been a particular solution for a particular problem – not an indication of a new norm. Interestingly, Cardinal Sarah also suggests that in order to strengthen their priests in today’s worldly climate, bishops should propose a “fully priestly life” to their diocesan priests: “A common life in prayer, poverty, celibacy and obedience.” Emphasising that this is not the same as religious life, the Cardinal is clearly thinking of many, often elderly and overworked, men in presbyteries, faced by a hostile media, a dwindling parish and progressive voices from their ranks wanting to change the nature of the vocation to which they have given their entire lives.
“Celibacy is the seal of the Cross on our lives as priests”, Sarah writes in this inspired book.