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Speaking with an Italian newspaper in his first comments since Pope Francis accepted his resignation, the African cardinal highlights the central importance of the liturgy and debunks claims of a rift with the Holy Father.
In his first interview since Pope Francis accepted his resignation as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments last month, Cardinal Robert Sarah has revealed how ideological struggles over worship were a source of “great suffering” for him.
In comments to Matteo Matzuzzi of the Italian daily Il Foglio published on Wednesday (see below for an English translation provided exclusively to the Register), Cardinal Sarah says that in the Church today “too often we act as if everything is a question of politics, power, influence and the unjustified imposition of a hermeneutic of Vatican II that totally breaks and is irreversibly at odds with Tradition.”
The solution, he argues, is for the Church to return to placing God at the center of the liturgy, beginning by celebrating Mass ad orientem. “If God is not at the center of the Church’s life, then she is in danger of death,” he says, suggesting that the Church is “currently experiencing a Good Friday,” but adding that “Christ's victory always comes through the Cross.”
Cardinal Sarah stresses that it’s unsound to view such matters as being ideological issues. “I don’t believe that the struggle between progressives and conservatives has any meaning in the Church,” he said, adding, “These categories are political and ideological. The Church is not a field of political struggle.”
He also discusses his positive relationships with Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, his time as prefect, his plans for the future, and how he sees the Church in the coming years.
Your Eminence, everyone was surprised by your departure from the Congregation for Divine Worship. What does this timing mean?
Like all cardinals, according to the rule in force, I had given the Holy Father my letter of resignation as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments last June on the occasion of my 75th birthday. At that time he asked me to continue my work in the service of the universal Church donec alter provideatur, in other words “until the Holy Father decrees otherwise.” A few weeks ago, however, the Pope informed me that he had decided to accept this request. I immediately replied that I was happy and grateful for his decision.
I have often said: Obedience to the Pope is not only a human necessity, it is the means of obeying Christ who put the Apostle Peter and his successors at the head of the Church.
I am happy and proud to have served three popes: St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, in the Roman Curia for more than 20 years. I have tried to be a loyal, obedient and humble servant of the truth of the Gospel. Even though some journalists continually repeat the same nonsense, I have never opposed the Pope.
What did you learn from your service in the dicastery for the liturgy?
Some see this dicastery as an honorary position, but of little importance. On the contrary, I believe that the responsibility for the liturgy puts us at the heart of the Church, of her raison d'être. The Church is neither an administration nor a human institution. The Church mysteriously prolongs Christ's presence on earth. “The liturgy,” says the Second Vatican Council, “is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows,” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10), and “because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.” (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7).
The Church exists to give men to God and to give God to men. This is precisely the role of the liturgy: to worship God and to communicate divine grace to souls. When the liturgy is sick, the whole Church is in danger because her relationship with God is not only weakened but deeply damaged.
The Church then runs the risk of cutting herself off from her divine source to become a self-centered institution that has only herself to proclaim.
I am very struck by the fact that there is much talk about the Church, about her necessary reform. But are we talking about God? Are we talking about the work of Redemption that Christ accomplished mainly through the paschal mystery of his blessed Passion, his Resurrection from hell and his glorious Ascension, the paschal mystery by which “dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 5)? Rather than talking about ourselves, let us turn to God! This is the message I have been repeating for years. If God is not at the center of the Church’s life, then she is in danger of death. That is certainly why Benedict XVI said that the crisis of the Church is essentially a crisis of the liturgy because it is a crisis of the relationship with God.
That is also why, following Benedict XVI, I insisted: the purpose of the liturgy is not to celebrate the community or man, but God. This is very well expressed in the oriented celebration [ad orientem]. “Where direct orientation towards the East is not possible,” says Benedict XVI, “the cross can therefore serve as an interior orientation of faith. It must then take its place at the center of the altar and concentrate the gaze of the priest and the praying community. In this we conform to the ancient invitation to prayer that opens the Eucharist: Conversi ad Dominum: “Turn to the Lord. Then we look together to the One whose death gives us life, to the One who stands for us before the Father, takes us in his arms, and makes us living and new temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6: 19).’” When everyone turns together towards the Cross, we avoid the risk of a face-to-face encounter that is too human and closed in on itself. We open our hearts to the outpouring of God. “The idea that, in prayer, the priest and the people should face one another in prayer was born only in modern Christianity, it is completely foreign to ancient Christianity. It is certain that the priest and the people pray not towards each other, but towards the one Lord,” Christ who, in silence, comes to meet us. (Joseph Ratzinger, Preface to Volume XI: The Theology of the Liturgy — of the Complete Works, Paris, Parole et Silence, 2020). This is also why I have never ceased to return to the place of silence in the liturgy. When man remains silent, he leaves a place for God. On the contrary, when the liturgy becomes chatty, it forgets that the cross is its center, it organizes itself around the microphone. All these questions are crucial because they determine the place we give to God. Unfortunately they have been transformed into ideological questions.
You seem to be expressing regret. What do you want to say? What do you mean by “ideological”?
Today in the Church, too often we act as if everything is a question of politics, power, influence and the unjustified imposition of a hermeneutic of Vatican II that totally breaks and is irreversibly at odds with Tradition. It has been a great suffering for me to witness these factional struggles. When I spoke of liturgical orientation and sense of the sacred, I was told: “You are opposed to the Second Vatican Council”! This is false! I don’t believe that the struggle between progressives and conservatives has any meaning in the Church. These categories are political and ideological. The Church is not a field of political struggle. The only thing that counts is to seek God ever more deeply, to meet Him there and humbly kneel down to adore Him.
Pope Francis, when he appointed me, gave me two instructions: first, to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council and second, to bring to life the liturgical legacy of Benedict XVI. I am firmly convinced that these two directives form a single direction. Indeed, Benedict XVI is certainly the one who understood Vatican II most deeply. Continuing the liturgical work of Benedict XVI is the best way to implement the true Council. Unfortunately, some ideologues want to set the pre-Council Church against the post-Council Church. They are dividers; they are doing the work of the devil. The Church is one, without rupture, without changing course, because her Founder “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). She goes towards God, she directs us towards him. From the profession of faith of Saint Peter to Pope Francis through Vatican II, the Church turns us towards Christ.
Giving the liturgy its sacred character, leaving room for silence, and even celebrating at times towards the East, as Pope Francis did in the Sistine Chapel or at Loreto, is the profound and spiritual fulfilment of the Council.
An extraordinary coincidence: on the very day of the announcement of my departure, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sent me the French edition of his works on the liturgy. I saw in it an invitation from Providence to continue this work to restore a liturgy that puts God back at the heart of the life of the Church.
How was working with Pope Francis? Were there not difficulties?
Some people insinuate without reason or even being able to provide concrete and credible proof that we were enemies, it’s not true! Pope Francis likes frankness. We have always worked together with simplicity, despite the fantasies of journalists. For example, Pope Francis understood very well and received the book for which I had collaborated with Benedict XVI, From the Depths of Our Hearts. I did not hide from him my concern about the ecclesiological consequences of questioning the celibacy of priests. When he received me after its publication, when press campaigns accused me of lying, he supported and encouraged me. He had read and appreciated, it seems, the autographed copy that Pope Benedict XVI, in his delicacy, had sent him.
On that occasion I realized that truth always triumphs over lies. There is no point in getting involved in big communication campaigns. It is enough to have the courage to remain true and free. The support of Pope Francis, the constant affection of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the thousands of messages of thanks from priests and lay people from all over the world helped me to understand the depth of the message of the Risen Jesus: Do not be afraid!
How do you see the future of the Church?
I am a member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. There I see with immense joy how the Church is bursting with holiness. There, I am happy to see with her eyes the impressive number of so many daughters and sons of the Catholic Church who take seriously the Gospel and the universal call to holiness. Truly “it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth “the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 5). In spite of what the “blind from birth” say, in spite of the many sins of her members, the Church is beautiful and holy. She is an extension of Jesus Christ. The Church is not a worldly institution; her health is not measured by her power and influence. The Church today is experiencing a Good Friday. The boat seems to be taking on water from all sides. Some betray her from within. I think of the drama and the horrible crimes of pedophile priests. How could the mission be fruitful when so many lies cover the beauty of Jesus’ face? Others are tempted to betray when they leave the ship to follow the fashionable powers. I think of the temptations at work in Germany on the synodal journey. One wonders what will remain of the Gospel if all this reaches its end: a real silent apostasy.
But Christ's victory always comes through the Cross. The Church must go towards the Cross and towards the great silence of Holy Saturday. We must pray with Mary beside the body of Jesus. Watch, pray, do penance and make reparation so that we can better proclaim the Victory of the Risen Christ!
How is the future for you?
I don’t intend to stop working! And in fact I am happy to have more time to pray and read. I will continue to write, to speak, to travel. Here in Rome, I continue to receive priests and faithful from all over the world. More than ever the Church needs bishops who speak clearly, free and faithful to Jesus Christ and to the doctrinal and moral teachings of his Gospel. I intend to continue this mission and even amplify it. I must continue to work in the service of the unity of the Church, in truth and charity. I humbly wish to continue to support the reflection, the prayer, the courage and the faith of so many Christians who are disoriented, confused and perplexed by the many crises that we are going through at this time: anthropological crisis, cultural crisis, crisis of faith, priestly crisis, moral crisis, but above all, crisis in our relationship with God.
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