It’s no surprise Benedict XVI is praising Cardinal Sarah – the two enjoy a rare spiritual kinship

Cardinal Robert Sarah receives his cardinal's ring from Pope Benedict XVI (Getty images)

In a rare act of endorsement, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written the Afterword to a new book by Cardinal Sarah of Guinea entitled The Power of Silence. Cardinal Sarah is the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Recently, he made an appeal for Communion to be received on the tongue when kneeling and for priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem, so it is not surprising that Pope Benedict, under whose pontificate the relationship between the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Mass was refined, should feel a spiritual kinship with him.

But this is not the primary link between these two men of God. What unites them is something prior to reverent celebration of the liturgy; it is simply man’s relationship to God in prayer. We tend to think of prayer as requiring words; after all, we are creatures who use language and there are innumerable beautiful prayers in Scripture and the liturgy. But primarily, prayer is silent adoration; not the mere absence of sound or words but that essential quiet needed to hear the still small voice of God in our hearts and respond to it.

What Cardinal Sarah and the former Holy Father share is the conviction – especially necessary today when it is easy to become addicted to the media in all its changing forms – that the Church and the spiritual lives of its members cannot flourish unless we return to the example of Christ himself who, as Pope Benedict reminds the reader in his Afterword, “frequently spent nights alone ‘on the mountain’ in prayer, in conversation with his Father. We know that his speech, his word, comes from silence and could only mature there.”

The Power of Silence is not a promising title in a world full of noise. My own copy, published before Pope Benedict added his own thoughts in his Afterword, has it written by the author, Cardinal Sarah himself. In it, he reminds us that “all the saints have ardently loved silence”. Indeed, he goes further, warning that “a multitude of sins are due to chattering or listening complacently to the chatter of others” and adding a profoundly disquieting rhetorical question: “How many souls will be lost on the day of the Last Judgment because they did not keep watch over their tongue?” God help us – what a wake-up call that is.

Having reviewed Cardinal Sarah’s earlier book, God or Nothing, which I unreservedly recommend to every Catholic to read, I am reminded that for the Cardinal, “Man is only great when he is on his knees before God”. Also, that when he was made Archbishop of Conakry, he made the decision to make a spiritual retreat every two months in an isolated place, fasting entirely from food and drink for three days and taking with him only a Bible, a travelling Mass kit and a book of spiritual reading.

One can see why Pope Benedict, whose life now is organised around silence and prayer, should feel inspired to write his Afterword to The Power of Silence. As a theologian he knows that “mere” scholarship is not enough; you have to enter into “Jesus’ silence, from which his word is born.” At present our parish is studying his book, Jesus of Nazareth; it is obvious that his writing flows from his own deep relationship with his subject.

What the Cardinal and the Pope Emeritus also understand is that priests and bishops have a special requirement to constantly renew their life of prayer. Otherwise, as Pope Benedict points out, when appointed bishop a man can quickly fall “into mediocrity and a concern for worldly success….Worried about his power, his authority and the material needs of his office, he gradually runs of out steam.” He concludes his Afterword with the comment that the liturgy needs to be “grounded in a deep, interior union with the praying Church, which…learns anew from the Lord himself what adoration is.”

We are reminded that before prayer becomes contrition, thanksgiving or supplication it is adoration. This adoration is the opposite of what the world has to offer. Cardinal Sarah, “a master of silence and of interior prayer” as the Pope Emeritus describes him, is a true pastor of souls; his new book, with this endorsement by a man who has clearly been a spiritual mentor to him, should also be essential reading.