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Cardinal Sarah: A prophet of our times

Cardinal Sarah (CNS)

The Church’s calendar includes the feast days of several of the great figures of the Old Testament (though observing them is not obligatory): King David on December 29, for example, or Melchisedek on August 26. Abraham’s falls on the same day as John Henry Newman’s, October 9.

The Prophet Elijah’s feast day is July 20. I know that because it is my priestly ordination anniversary. I can’t say that I detect much of Elijah in myself, but that might be said of another priest ordained on that date, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who celebrates 50 years of priestly ordination this year. (Cardinal Peter Turkson, the other African curial cardinal, was also ordained on July 20, but in 1975, six years after Cardinal Sarah.)

As a young archbishop in his native Guinea, still in his 30s, Sarah was marked out to be murdered by the tyrants who ruled his country and found him insufficiently submissive. Like Elijah, he knows what it means to be hunted by the king.

In recent years Cardinal Sarah has shifted towards a more prophetic mode, warning us in a series of books and speeches that an apostasy is underway in many parts of the world, and in some parts of the Church. There is something of Elijah – speaking for the faith in a time of infidelity – in that too. He shocked many with his address at the 2015 synod on the family, when he spoke of “Beasts of the Apocalypse” in regard to Western decadence and jihadist extremism. Cardinal Sarah never went to the finishing school where many bishops learn how to speak without ever giving offence.

That parrhesia (boldness in speech) might have endeared him to Pope Francis, who promoted him from the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which dispenses corporal works of charity on behalf of the pope, to the Congregation for Divine Worship. But since that appointment in 2014, Cardinal Sarah has been marginalised. The inner circle around the Holy Father only care for “prophetic” voices of a certain kind, the kind that, in the manner of progressive NGOs, hurl condemnatory judgments at big corporations and wealthy countries. Cardinal Sarah is not of that kind, as he pays rather too much attention to adherence to God in the household of faith. His book, after all, was called God or Nothing.

He does not say what voices at the centre think voices at the periphery should say. He has been rather inconvenient in that regard and when his five-year term at Divine Worship is up this November, there will be many in the inner circle lobbying Pope Francis to give him the same treatment given to Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Müller – the unceremonious dismissal.

Which would be a great pity, and prematurely send into retirement a man who has understood so well the mission of the Church in our time. It’s not just that Sarah represents the flourishing of the missionary efforts in Africa, being one of the first native-born priests in Guinea. It is not even that he represents, to put it in Churchillian terms, the “new” Church coming to the rescue of the “old”. It’s that his service in the Roman Curia has given him a unique perspective on the essential mission of the Church.

‘The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility,” wrote Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. “Proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.”

Sarah was first brought to Rome in 2001 by St John Paul II, who appointed him secretary at the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fidei), the Vatican department charged with overseeing the mission ad gentes (to the nations), the proclamation of the word of God. He was then appointed head of Cor Unum by Benedict XVI, the council which exercises the diakonia of the Holy Father.

Finally, he was promoted by Pope Francis to Divine Worship, where he was charged with the leitourgia. One should not identify leading a bureau with being seized with the animating mission of the same, as there are plenty of examples to the contrary. But in Cardinal Sarah we see a clear model of man who has lived – not just by appointment but by zeal and devotion – that triplex munera of the Church.

At 50 years, he is closer to the end than the beginning, but it is fondly to be hoped that he has many years of service remaining.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca