Cardinal Sarah: the Vatican’s great survivor

Cardinal Robert Sarah celebrates Mass at the London Oratory in 2016 (Fr Lawrence Lew, OP)

‘Carefully outspoken’ is the best description of the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Throughout his tenure in the department of the Roman Curia responsible for overseeing the Church’s liturgical life, the 72-year-old Guinean has made headlines with his parrhesia – his frank talk – about matters ranging from the posture of priests celebrating Mass, to the powers of his office when it comes to curating liturgical translations.

Most recently, he wrote the preface to a book on The distribution of Communion on the hand: a historical, juridical and pastoral survey, by Fr Federico Bortoli, which constructs in laborious detail the process by which what began as an abuse ­– ie, receiving Holy Communion standing and in the hand ­– gained increasing measures of tolerance and legal protection.

Cardinal Sarah’s outspokenness has made headlines, not least because his positions are apparently often at odds with Pope Francis’s own. If Sarah is not on board with the “Franciscan” view of things, why is he still in the job?

For one thing, he is willing to toe the line, even if he dances a little on one side of it.

It helps, too, that Pope Francis is not very sensitive to questions of liturgical form. He has kept Benedict XVI’s Master of Ceremonies, Mgr Guido Marini, and mostly let him work freely when it comes to papal liturgies. Francis occasionally celebrates in Cardinal Sarah’s preferred ad orientem posture ­– ie, facing the same direction as the congregation – most notably in the Sistine Chapel, at the high altar Benedict had restored to use in 2008.

Indeed, Pope Francis told Cardinal Sarah he wants him to continue with the liturgical reform Benedict XVI began. Sarah is just doing the job Francis gave him as he sees fit to do it.

Disagreements between the two men have surfaced ­– for instance, over Francis’s reforms to the way liturgical translations are prepared and approved. The changes Francis made effectively weakened the CDW and gave more control over the translation of liturgical texts to bishops’ conferences. Cardinal Sarah wrote a commentary on the new law, in which he asserted that ultimate authority still rested with the CDW. When that commentary was leaked online, Francis wrote to Sarah to clarify the matter and instructed him “[to] provide [Francis’s] response to the same sites”, which had carried Sarah’s commentary, “and also to send it to all episcopal conferences, and the members and consultors of [Sarah’s] dicastery”. Francis carefully couched his rebuke, saying the leak had been “erroneously” attributed to Sarah (though there was little doubt that he had written it).

With his preface to Fr Bortoli’s book, Cardinal Sarah has perhaps taken another dangerous step. Some headlines proclaimed that Sarah had called receiving Communion standing and in the hand a “diabolical attack,” the purpose of which is to “extinguish faith in the Eucharist”. This is significant because Benedict XVI had re-introduced the practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue during papal liturgies ­– at least for those receiving from the Holy Father – while Pope Francis made something of a point of walking that policy back in St Peter’s Basilica.

Now, Cardinal Sarah did not say what some headlines say he said ­– not exactly. Sarah was discussing in general terms a diffuse lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, which he attributed to the work of Satan. “Why do we insist on communicating standing in the hand?” he asked. “Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?” So, Sarah also did not exactly not say what many headlines say he said, either. But when a meeting with Sarah appeared on Francis’s schedule last week, there was speculation that a rebuke might be coming.

The Pope replaced the CDW’s membership in 2016, stacking it with members not considered well disposed to the “reform of the reform” that Cardinal Sarah understood it was his task to continue, essentially isolating him within his own dicastery. Put bluntly, Francis may simply think it best to keep Sarah close and reachable by embarrassment short of dismissal.

The increased outspokenness of Cardinal Gerhard Müller since his dismissal as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may suggest the prudence of such a consideration. In any case, Cardinal Sarah seems determined to speak his mind: carefully and respectfully, but frankly. That is bound to make his exile-in-place costly for Francis.

This article first appeared in the March 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here