The Rector writes …

Browsing recently through the bookshop next to Westminster Cathedral, I bought a paperback which described itself as “God or Nothing – a Conversation on Faith” by Cardinal Sarah. I am glad that I did, not least in the discovery that he and I are the same age almost to the day … but what a difference in culture and upbringing! Robert Sarah is a national of the small West African country of Guinea. His parents came from a village in the midst of the bush, and though animist by background had sought baptism through the activities of the Holy Ghost Fathers (the Spiritans). It was the example of these French missionaries that inspired the young Robert to offer himself for the priesthood which led to his ordination as the youngest bishop in the Church of his day at just thirty three. These were crisis times for the Church in Guinea as the  Marxist government of Sekou Toure actively persecuted Catholics (Bishop Sarah’s predecessor had been imprisoned and tortured before being exiled) and the new bishop had to walk a careful tightrope (the plans for his execution were found when the regime changed). Called to Rome, Robert Sarah has worked in several roles most notably as head of “Cor unum” (the Vatican agency for charity work worldwide). In 2010 he was made a Cardinal and Pope Francis has now appointed him to head the Congregation for Divine Worship.


The fascination about this great man of God is that Cardinal Sarah, despite his wide experience of the Church’s hierarchy, has stayed close to his roots. He reveres the example of the Spiritans’ total vocation of self-sacrifice which brought his family and others to faith, and his love for Africa and Guinea in particular, offers a different perspective. Robert Sarah shares with Benedict XV1 a deep concern at the apparent de-Christianisation of much of the Western world but he is as clear that renewal of the whole Church is already happening in Asia, Latin American and his own continent of Africa: he has little time for the Eurocentric agenda which projects its own problems onto the rest of the Church. This Cardinal believes firmly in a theology on its knees: for him the age-old questions about God’s existence and nature are to be answered in a prayerful reflection on the tradition which has been handed down from apostolic times. Time and time again in his “Conversation” Robert Sarah reiterates the need to find space for God in our lives: as befits his current responsibilities, he centres this space in the liturgy – “the Holy Mass must be treated with dignity, beauty and respect. The celebration of the Eucharist requires first a great silence, a silence inhabited by God”.


One of the recurrent themes is that “ideologies will not save the world but rather the saints and their great gentle insights” and this from a man who knows from bitter personal experience “ideologies coarsen, crush, and destroy men, because they are not intrinsically orientated to their advantage”. Cardinal Sarah recognises that polemics are not only destructive of civil society but also of the Church’s unity: he holds strong views himself, not least about the celebration of the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments which is his particular responsibility, but he begs for the realisation that what we share is infinitely greater than anything which causes division. In considering the crucial need for a new evangelisation Robert Sarah touches the heart of the matter: “this movement presupposes that we go beyond mere theoretical knowledge of the Word of God: we must rediscover personal contact with Jesus. It is important to give individuals the opportunity of close encounters with Christ. Without such heart-to-heart conversation, we are fooling ourselves if we think that people will follow the Son of God in the long term”.


The relevance for us of what Cardinal Sarah writes would seem to be the challenge to find space for God in our own lives.  If our prayer (both personal and corporate) is to be an authentic encounter with the living God we have to find an inner stillness which is receptive to such encounters. “In the current situation there is a burning question on our lips. How can we help people to rediscover the faith? With the utmost vigour, Saint John solemnly proclaims: ‘What we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, what we have contemplated, we proclaim also to you’)”.

Christopher Colven