Cardinal Robert Sarah has said the “hateful divisions” over liturgy must end, and that liturgical debates have become an occasion for “public humiliation”.
In an interview with the French publication Le Nef, translated by Catholic World Report, the cardinal, who heads the Vatican’s liturgy department, reportedly said: “Without a contemplative spirit, the liturgy will remain an occasion for hateful divisions and ideological clashes, for the public humiliation of the weak by those who claim to hold some authority, whereas it ought to be the place of our unity and our communion in the Lord. Why should we confront and detest each other?”
The cardinal also said fierce debates over the liturgy are the work of the devil: “Yes, the devil wants us to be opposed to each other at the very heart of the sacrament of unity and fraternal communion. It is time for this mistrust, contempt and suspicion to cease.”
He said he specifically regrets that ad orientem worship has been contested in an “ideological clash of factions”.
In July, the cardinal gave a speech in which he asked priests to begin celebrating Mass ad orientem – that is, facing east. It provoked a debate, in which the Vatican appeared to reject Cardinal Sarah’s remarks.
In the same week, Cardinal Sarah had a private audience with Pope Francis. In this latest interview, the cardinal said he has explained to the Pope that he wanted to help the faithful, not to spark conflict. “As I had the opportunity to say recently, during a private interview with the Holy Father, here I am just making the heartfelt suggestions of a pastor who is concerned about the good of the faithful. I do not intend to set one practice against another.”
In August, referring to the controversy over his speech, Cardinal Sarah said that the reaction to it was “not always very accurate”.
In the new interview, the cardinal said that ad orientem could not be “imposed as a revolution”; it was sensible, he added, to prepare a parish with catechesis first.
He went on to say that “If it is physically not possible to celebrate ad orientem, it is absolutely necessary to put a cross on the altar in plain view, as a point of reference for everyone. Christ on the cross is the Christian East.”
The cardinal was speaking on the publication of his new book The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. The book meditates on the encounter with God. In the interview, Cardinal Sarah describes prayer as “a moment of silent, intimate encounter in which a human being stands face to face with God to adore Him and to express his filial love for Him”.
In response to a question about his ad orientem appeal, the cardinal said this encounter can be seen in St Mary Magdalene, who “was able to recognize Jesus on Easter morning because she turned back toward Him”.
He goes on to link this disposition with ad orientem worship: “How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned?”
Cardinal Sarah said this “outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolises.” He argues that it dates back to apostolic times, and that it is “not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, ad Dominum, toward the Lord.”
The cardinal added that ad orientem worship helps the priest avoid the temptation “to monopolise the conversation”. If the priest is “facing the Lord”, the cardinal said, he is less likely to “become a professor who gives a lecture during the whole Mass, reducing the altar to a podium centered no longer on the cross but on the microphone!”
He added: “The priest must remember that he is only an instrument in Christ’s hands, that he must be quiet in order to make room for the Word, and that our human words are ridiculous compared to the one Eternal Word.”
The cardinal said he is “convinced” that priests use a different, more reverent tone of voice when they celebrate Mass ad orientem.