Cardinal Robert Sarah: A Prophetic Voice for the Catholic Church
BOOK PICK: Reading the cardinal’s The Day Is Now Far Spent, one has the sense of encountering an Old Testament prophet.
THE DAY IS NOW FAR SPENT
By Cardinal Robert Sarah and Nicolas Diat
Ignatius Press, 2019
349 pages, $19.95
To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316
The Day Is Now Far Spent is the third book by Cardinal Robert Sarah and his interlocutor, Nicolas Diat. Like the first two books, it follows the same interview/conversation format used by both John Paul II (in Crossing the Threshold of Hope) and Cardinal Ratzinger (in The Ratzinger Report and Milestones).
It is an effective style. The questions to Cardinal Sarah can at times seem more leading and less interactive. But that doesn’t hurt the final product, as Diat’s questions bring forth powerful reflections and exhortations from the 74-year-old cardinal, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
The majority of the book consists of the cardinal’s analyses and diagnoses of various crises in the Church and in the world: doctrinal confusion, scandals, transgender ideology, transhumanism, priesthood and the West’s acedia (spiritual sloth). His observations and exhortations are piercing, powerful and, at times, unsettling. They are also lengthy. Not until the last two chapters does Diat turn the conversation to reasons for hope and what we can do.
Reading The Day Is Now Far Spent, one has the sense of encountering an Old Testament prophet. It is as though Isaiah or Jeremiah has stepped into our times and proclaimed the word of the Lord.
Like the prophets of old, Cardinal Sarah cannot keep the truth within himself; he must speak. Thus already on the first page he states, “I can no longer be silent. I must no longer remain silent. Christians are disoriented.”
Cardinal Sarah is indeed a prophetic voice in and for the Church. In this book he fulfills the prophet’s role: to remind, exhort, condemn, warn and console.
Again, like the prophets of old, Cardinal Sarah is not disconnected from those to whom he speaks. As a “son of Africa” he knows well the gifts, promises and challenges of that continent. At the same time, as one steeped in the best of the West’s tradition, he knows the riches that Europe once bestowed and that now, in its crisis, is swiftly losing. He is thus particularly suited to speaking to the Church’s opportunities and challenges.
Cardinal Sarah is a prophet of piety — of that virtue that prompts man to look joyfully to what came before him and to receive with reverence what his fathers bestow. The cardinal himself displays a deep piety. He knows that what he has to proclaim is not his own but something received. Accordingly, he quotes heavily from St. John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, and the Church’s tradition more generally.
Piety remembers and preserves the gifts of the past.
We typically think of a prophet as foretelling events and predicting the future. But the greater burden of a prophet’s mission is to remind God’s people of their past — of where they came from and who God made them to be. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” Isaiah said to the forgetful Israelites (Isaiah 51:1). Because forgetfulness of Sinai had led them into apostasy.
An even more dangerous amnesia threatens us now. So Cardinal Sarah similarly warns the Church against this impious forgetfulness. Modern man lacks piety; he refuses to remember. He wants not to receive from the past but to create new things on his own. Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves him cold.
Cardinal Sarah’s look to the past is not just a nostalgic lament for what once was. It is a warning against being cut off from what makes us who we are: the Church’s saving doctrine and liturgical tradition, the Christian heritage of Europe, and, most of all, the family. Even more profoundly, he sees this impiety as a rejection of filiation, of being brought into existence.
Modern man refuses to be dependent on anyone, to receive the truth of his being — indeed, even to be created. Such metaphysical deracination, in the cardinal’s estimation, sunders man from what makes him who he is. It then produces a distorted view of freedom and exposes especially the poor to the social upheaval that inevitably comes.
Of course, that concern for the little ones — a theme throughout the book — is another dimension of piety. (The Latin word pietas enters English as both “piety” and “pity.”)
As a former president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, directing the Church’s humanitarian relief efforts, Cardinal Sarah knows well the physical suffering of millions throughout the world. This makes it all the more remarkable that he emphasizes not so much the physical as the metaphysical threat to the poor. The current doctrinal confusion, “capitalist materialism,” and gender ideology harm the poor disproportionately. As the “guardian of human nature,” the Church defends the world’s weak, powerless and poor by defending the truth about man.
In light of the ongoing clergy scandals and the current controversies surrounding the Pan-Amazon synod, the cardinal’s words to priests emerge as particularly important. His analysis of the “crisis of the priesthood” avoids any superficial diagnoses and penetrates to the depth of the problems. It is again a forgetfulness — in this case, of the priesthood — that accounts not only for the damage done by infidelity but also for the proposals now being advanced at the Amazon synod.
Here again, in confronting various issues (scandals, celibacy, etc.), Cardinal Sarah calls priests back to their roots, to their priestly identity. “We have forgotten to let ourselves be immersed in Christ.” It is, in effect, an exhortation to piety — to receive the truth about the priesthood all over again.
Fallen man’s inclination to forgetfulness accounts for much of what ails us. We have in many regards sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. Thank God for Cardinal Sarah’s prophetic voice calling us back to the truth of Christ and his Church.
Father Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.