Books blog: Cardinal Sarah spells out the power of missionaries

Cardinal Robert Sarah (CNS)

Nicolas Bellord – always a sound Catholic commentator – wrote under a recent blog of mine that the best book about faith which he had discovered was God or Nothing, a long interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea. As I am reading this book at the moment I well understand what he means. I hadn’t heard of Cardinal Sarah before the October Synod; then I read his chapter in a recent book published by Ignatius, Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family. He wrote as a true pastor: authoritative, faithful, Catholic – a refreshing antidote to some of the German bishops at the Synod and the kind of unambiguous voice we Catholic faithful long to hear.

As I am only a short way through God or Nothing I will only comment here on one thing: the effect of the Holy Ghost Fathers in their missionary work in Guinea. Cardinal Sarah comes from a remote village in a region where the local tribesmen were animists. His own tribe, the Coniaguis, were very religious and devoted to their concept of “God”; “Community living and caring for the needs of others were of the utmost importance,” Cardinal Sarah relates.

The reason I mention the impact of the missionaries on a remote community in this West African country is because, to my shame, I found myself surprised that the cardinal constantly praises them. Why is this? I can only put it down to a certain unconscious contamination from the liberal wing of the Church (and society) which for decades has criticised the work of the foreign missions – indeed, to the extent of implying that as we are all on a journey towards God anyway, specifically Christian missionary activity is now plainly redundant. I don’t say I believe this nonsense (did it come in after Vatican II?), but plainly I have been infected by it, along with the outlook of secular historians, who write about the “neo-colonialism” of the African missionaries, who they view as a wing of British imperialist outreach.

For Cardinal Sarah all this would sound incredible; he refers to these French Holy Ghost Fathers constantly, and always with deep affection and gratitude. “These men of God made great sacrifices and suffered many deprivations without ever complaining and unending generosity” he says in one place. In another he simply remarks, “I owe my entrance into Christ’s family entirely to [them].” The missionaries enabled his tribe to “understand that Jesus alone truly gives us the gift of being born again.”

It was these dedicated priests, particularly through their example of prayer and the reverent way they celebrated Mass (the young Sarah was an altar boy) who the cardinal believes are responsible for his vocation. Indeed, one of them, recognising the boy’s seriousness and concentration at Mass, suggested he apply for the junior seminary with the purpose of eventually becoming a priest. Letting their only child go was a great sacrifice for his parents, but they showed characteristic generosity. Cardinal Sarah comments, “Father and I were already convinced that the Mass was the only moment that transforms man on this earth.” Both parents showed exemplary faith and indeed, the whole village felt honoured that one of their own should become one of the first African priests of the country.

When Guinea was overrun by the Marxist regime of Sekou Toure, Cardinal Sarah relates that it was “the humility of the [missionaries’] faith” that was “the strongest defence against the …aberrations of the revolutionary Marxist ideology of the State Party in Guinea.” It brought home to me yet again what a gift faith is and how transformative it is meant to be in the lives of those who receive it – not just an animist tribe in Africa, but in England. Here we can so easily take it for granted – or query the usefulness or necessity of missionary activity. Read Cardinal Sarah’s book and learn how, when the Faith is preached and lived in its entirety, it can transform the lives of a whole community.