News Analysis

France: Saving Europe

Shy but courageous (

Cardinal Sarah has given a vivid diagnosis of what ails the West

Sometimes a family needs someone from the outside to tell it hard truths. That’s precisely what Cardinal Robert Sarah, the African-born prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, did last month in a Pentecost homily delivered to thousands of young Catholics who had made the Notre-Dame de Chrétienté pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral. In just 2,370 words, Sarah gave a vivid diagnosis of what ails the West and how a particular vision of the Church must be part of the answer.

In person, Cardinal Sarah (pictured) is a softly spoken, even shy man. But that quietness goes hand in hand with a genuine fearlessness. It is this combination of humility and raw courage which, I suspect, makes Sarah so popular among the growing segments of the French Church that have rejected the accommodationist path of the immediate post-conciliar period, and who have been eager readers of Sarah’s bestselling books, Dieu ou Rien and La Force du Silence.

Cardinal Sarah’s homily wasn’t the first occasion he has addressed the West’s sorry state. But this time he did so with the passion of a Hebrew prophet. At Pentecost, Sarah said, God “gave us the light of faith … but we prefer darkness!” “Look around us,” Sarah exhorted his listeners; the West was awash with ideologies that “deny human nature”. Trying to live without God, Sarah believes, has been a disaster for Europe.

So how does the West escape this darkness? For Sarah, it comes down to Christians making radical choices: to return to their roots, to live fundamentally different lives, and to proclaim the Gospel fearlessly.

Sarah reminded his audience that French civilisation was built in monasteries. It’s not that Sarah wants Christians to retreat into a ghetto. In fact, he specified, the job of “lay people engaged in the life of the city” was to be Christ’s “light to this world”. His point was that monasteries are places of “beauty and joy” where Christians can learn to put God at the centre of their lives, instead of treating the substance of the faith as an optional extra in the Church-as-NGO.

Living out Cardinal Sarah’s combination of decisive action and deep contemplation adds up to a very different vision of the Church from that favoured by, say, many German bishops. Sarah knows that. But this homily wasn’t just about laying down markers; it also sought to offer inspiration to a new generation of French Catholics. Judging by the reaction of pilgrims, his intervention more than succeeded.