Arts & Books

Meet the cardinal who ‘recharges for battle’ by fasting from food and water

Cardinal Sarah of Guinea: strong, wise and confidently Catholic (Photo: AP)

God or Nothing by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Ignatius, £12.99

I would bet that many Catholics in the West had not heard of Cardinal Sarah of Guinea before the family synod in October. Then his name kept cropping up, dispelling the disquiet many of us felt over the Church, when we heard his voice: strong, wise and confidently Catholic.

It has become a cliché to survey the Church worldwide, note the moral turmoil in Europe alongside its decreasing populations, and then suggest that it might be Africa’s turn to take up the baton of the faith. When you read these reflections by Cardinal Sarah you realise that any such pious patronage of the African Church must give way in the face of his quiet authority.

This book-length interview gives him a platform to share his love for the Church and the influences that took this boy from an animist tribe in a remote village in Guinea, West Africa, to the post of Archbishop of Conakry and, latterly, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He was born in 1945 and, as he describes the French Holy Ghost missionaries who converted his parents and his village, it is obvious that their example of self-sacrifice and prayer have been the basis of his own priestly life ever since.

Where some people tend to disparage missionary activity as being a pre-Vatican II relic of a patrician institution, for Sarah, an only child, and his devout parents, it released them from the superstitions and fears of tribal beliefs, from the darkness of paganism into the light of truth. In his replies he constantly makes clear his gratitude, saying: “I owe my entrance into Christ’s family entirely to them.”

Although his tribe, the Coniagui people, were religious in their own way, they “were incapable of answering life’s most important questions”. It was the missionary priests, who “suffered many deprivations without ever complaining”, who helped Sarah’s people to understand that “Jesus alone truly gives us the gift of being born again”.

When Guinea was overrun by the dictatorship of Ahmed Sékou Touré, it was his training in the faith that helped the young seminarian to see that “the humility of [the missionaries’ faith] was the strongest defence against the … aberrations of the revolutionary Marxist ideology of the State Party in Guinea”.

There was no temptation to worship the state once one had recognised that “man is only great when he is on his knees before God”.

Indeed, throughout the book, prayer is a constant. Made Archbishop of Conakry in 1978, aged only 34, Sarah felt deeply inadequate for the task facing him. He selected “My grace is sufficient for you” as his episcopal motto and chose as his priorities the formation of his priests, the formation of families, support for young people in the faith and evangelisation.

In a sense these priorities, which have remained with him throughout his life, were evident at last year’s synod. The focus on the problems of particular sections of the Church, such as those with a same-sex orientation or the divorced and remarried, have resulted, as he would see it, in not focusing enough on family formation or the task of priests in helping to evangelise the laity and couples preparing for marriage.

As archbishop, Sarah decided that every two months he would make a spiritual retreat in an isolated place, fasting from food and water for three days. He would take with him only a Bible, a travelling Mass kit and a book of spiritual reading.

He remarks that this practice helped him “to recharge and return to the battle”, and it is obvious that a deep habit of prayer has remained with him.

This makes Sarah a formidable voice when he raises it, as at the synod. In the face of German or American bishops offering ambiguous messages to the faithful, one hears instead: “A bishop, in order to fulfil his role, must do penance, fast, listen to the Lord and pray … in silence and solitude … The successors of the Apostles must imitate Christ as faithfully as possible.”

One of the implicit laments behind this book is Sarah’s sorrow that the Europe which produced such amazing missionary achievements in Africa seems to have lost its way. In Africa, he notes, religious faith has “extraordinary vitality”, despite Africans’ tragic colonial history and the enormous suffering they have endured under their own corrupt leaders. The African knows “that in this life he is only a sojourner”.

Sarah is passionate when speaking of Africa’s more recent exploitation by the West, pointing out that “gender ideology has become the perverse condition for
cooperation and development”.

He adds that Western attempts to impose their own sexual ideologies “are all the more hideous because most African populations are defenceless.”

Doubtless such remarks lead the secular press to label Cardinal Sarah an “arch-conservative” or worse. Nonetheless, reading this book, with its profundity, clarity and conviction, makes me reflect that if I were a cardinal in a future papal election I would vote for this man.

This article first appeared in the February 5 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here