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Cardinal Sarah’s fearless cri de coeur

Cardinal Robert Sarah (Getty)

Cardinal Sarah’s bluntness stands out in an age of episcopal double-speak

Cardinal Robert Sarah is not the most influential figure within the Roman Curia. Although he is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, one of the most important Vatican departments, his power is tightly circumscribed. After he gave a speech in 2016 urging priests worldwide to celebrate Mass facing east, he received a rare public rebuke. Later the Pope made sweeping changes to the membership of his Congregation – a move that was perceived as removing his supporters and replacing them with those who do not share his liturgical vision.

But despite his relative lack of sway at the Vatican, when Cardinal Sarah speaks, the world listens. Over the past week the 73-year-old Guinean has generated headlines with interviews promoting his new book, Le soir approche et déjà le jour baisse, which has just been released in France. English readers are likely to have to wait until September, when Ignatius Press is expected to publish a translation called The Day is Far Spent.

The new book’s title comes from Luke 24:29, when the disciples meet the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus and urge him to stay with them. It is the third volume in a trilogy that began with the autobiographical God or Nothing and was followed by The Power of Silence, a critique of what the cardinal called “the dictatorship of noise”. The first two books were surprise bestsellers and the new one may prove to be the most successful of all. Cardinal Sarah has described it as the “most important” of the three.

As the title implies, The Day is Far Spent argues that darkness is falling over our civilisation. The cardinal believes the West is an advanced state of spiritual collapse and can only be saved by rediscovering Christ. He previewed his argument in an interview with the French Catholic magazine La Nef (available in full in English on our website):

“The West refuses to receive, and will accept only what it constructs for itself … Because it is a gift from God, human nature itself becomes unbearable for Western man. This revolt is spiritual at root. It is the revolt of Satan against the gift of grace. Fundamentally, I believe that Western man refuses to be saved by God’s mercy. He refuses to receive salvation, wanting to build it for himself.”

What is immediately striking here is the bluntness of Cardinal Sarah’s language. This alone makes him stand out in an age of episcopal equivocation and double-speak. He is not afraid of making sweeping criticisms of modernity or of addressing fundamental spiritual realities such as grace, Satan and salvation.

In his La Nef interview Cardinal Sarah suggests that the Church is approaching a historic turning point. “The Church needs a profound, radical reform that must begin by a reform of the life of her priests,” he says, referring of course to the abuse crisis, which for decades has cast a dark shadow. Interestingly, despite his hardline reputation, the cardinal does not seem to align himself with those who claim that clerical homosexuality is the root of the crisis. “There is no ‘homosexual problem’ in the Church,” he insists. “There is a problem of sins and infidelity.”

Rather, the crisis is caused by what he terms a “poison” that has spread through the body of Christ: “It permeates everything, even our ecclesiastical discourse. It consists in allowing radically pagan and worldly modes of thinking or living to coexist side by side with faith.”

In another recent interview, this time with the French conservative weekly Valeurs actuelles, the cardinal criticised churchmen who “use the Word of God to promote migration”. “The Church can not cooperate with this new form of slavery that has become mass migration,” he said. “If the West continues in this fatal way, there is a great risk that, due to a lack of birth, it will disappear, invaded by foreigners, just as Rome has been invaded by barbarians.” He added that, as an African and a native of a predominantly Muslim country, “I think I know what reality I’m talking about.” This is not, to put it mildly, in tune with current Vatican thinking on immigration.

The cardinal’s uncompromising rhetoric will not appeal to all Catholics. Some will worry that it is too apocalyptic or that it undercuts Pope Francis, who prioritises dialogue with the world. But whatever one’s view, it is clear by now that no one can ignore Cardinal Sarah.