Cardinal Robert Sarah Pens a Guide to the Spiritual Life
His latest book, ‘Catechism of the Spiritual Life,’ reflects on the basics of life in relationship with Christ and his Church, religious liberty, the sacraments and spiritual battle.
Editor’s Note: During a Nov. 7 interview in Rome, Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, spoke about his latest book, Catechism of the Spiritual Life, published by EWTN Publishing in October. The on-camera interview was conducted EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser. The full interview broadcast on EWTN’s Vaticano Nov. 27 at 6pm Eastern. Minor editing changes were made for clarity.
Your Eminence, what made you decide to write a book on the spiritual life?
Amidst the confusion of this day, outside and even inside the Church, I saw a need for a representation of some reflections on our spiritual progress in our spiritual life: progress in our personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not a catechism to compete with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but it is narrower in scope, I hope answering a profound need of our time. Every one of us must strive, continuously, to draw closer to Jesus Christ, to return to his word, and to the simplicity of the faith in his self-revelation. It is the simplicity of the desert, of recognition of our dependence upon God, and encountering him and the gift of his love and his grace, by which he configured us to himself. That is why I decided to write Catechism of the Spiritual Life.
And why would you say the spiritual life needs a catechism?
Well, God has been forgotten in modern society. We all live as if God doesn’t exist. Confusion reigns everywhere. Too many would reduce our lives, the very meaning of our lives, to absolute individualism and the pursuit of fleeting pleasure. In this situation, then, we require a retreat from the world, withdrawal into the desert, where we can relearn the fundamentals, the basics: monotheism, the revelation of Jesus Christ, us and God, his word, our sin, our dependence and need of his mercy. Through his Church and the sacraments, God guides us into an ever-deeper relationship with him. And we all have a need to reacquaint ourselves with his profound gift, which is his love. So we need a catechism because we need to approach [closer and closer] to God.
How does one enter, and how does one progress in, the spiritual life? And how does this path differ from a non-spiritual life?
We enter into spiritual life by following Christ. He turns us toward himself, by his grace. We are led by him. And like the Hebrews, he leads us into the desert. There is a characteristic of spiritual life: There is no illusion of self-sufficiency, no false sense of security. We are justified only by Christ; we depend on him. He is our rock, and the Word of God is our firm foundation. This is another characteristic of spiritual life. Worldly life is built on sand. Without God’s word, people can think that they live an upright life, but it is illusory. The principles and values of moral law meet and find their reconciliation only in Christ. Human reason requires God’s help. Without God, we cannot live any just life, any vital life. We need God.
You describe the sacraments as pillars of the spiritual life. Do you think we need to put more effort into explaining the sacraments as the pillars of spiritual life and bring them to the attention of our modern society?
Sure. The sacraments remain part of the life of the faithful. But their significance has been forgotten or obscured by worldly concerns. We need to rediscover this as the principal means of grace that Jesus established in his Church. We need to understand the sacraments. They are not social affairs. Baptism, for example, should not be delayed to wait for a family gathering. But parents must hasten to baptize the children because their baptism is really the gate to the spiritual life, the gate to enter into the Church. Each of the seven sacraments is a gift of the Church, to illuminate how God intervenes in our lives for the sake of our salvation. So we need to explain more deeply: What is baptism? What is confirmation? What is the Eucharist? Not only a meeting for families. So this is why I wrote this book: to deepen our knowledge of the sacraments.
But you also write about the loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Why do you see this loss of faith as a cause for a decline of Christian communities? And how could we revive this faith?
I know that without faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church becomes only a horizontal phenomenon. The Church loses the meaning of her existence. The Church is not a social organization, to meet the problems of migration or poverty. The Church has a divine purpose: to save the world. If Christ does not dwell within the Church, tangibly, visibly, sacramentally, then what good news do we have to offer to the world? What is the meaning of evangelization? When Christians forget why they are Christian, the community must fall into decline. They forget the Gospel and lose sight of their purpose.
For those who still approach the Eucharist, if they lack faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, they will likely receive him, but unworthily, so without the result of progress in the Christian life. They, thereby, do violence to his Body, bringing condemnation upon themselves, and further hastening the community decline. To restore the Church, we need only to listen to the words of Jesus Christ: “This is my Body; this is my Blood.” Christ is not merely present in thought, subjectively. When you gather for the Holy Mass, he is present to us in the most supreme manner: In his Body, in his Blood, in his Soul, in his Divinity. In the Eucharist, he gives himself to us as food. He enters into our bodies, and he does not disappear in us, but we are taken up to him. We dwell in him, and he dwells in us. So beautiful is the Holy Mass, that if, only for a moment, we quiet ourselves and consider the immensity of the Eucharist, our faith in his presence must spring into life and lift our hearts to him.
Perhaps we can stay on this subject: the sacredness of the liturgy. Can you tell us more about its sacredness? What role does, for example, silent adoration in front of the Eucharist play? How do we lead people back to the mystery of adoration and to the appreciation of the adoration?
In the Eucharist, we encounter Jesus Christ, personally and intimately. Holy Mass is an essential part of Christian life. Christ himself tells us, “Do this in memory of me.” But having encountered him in the liturgy, how can we not desire to spend time with him in silent adoration? The minutes and the hours that we spend in his presence in the Eucharist continue his work in us by which he transforms us and conforms us to himself, makes us so that we become Christ, himself. The liturgy is sacred. It is our responsibility to confirm ourselves to eat, to be shaped by the liturgy, to reflect its holiness. The liturgy is sacred, it is holy, because it comes from God. It is not our invention, our creation.
And when we encounter Christ in the Eucharist, silently, we really change our lives. We really become his disciples; we really become Christian. This is quite clear from this reflection upon what we are doing in the liturgy: We commemorate the death and the resurrection of Our Lord by which he redeems us and draws us into his divine life. The liturgy leads us to his divine life. And I will encourage us to keep the liturgy more and more sacred, more and more holy, more and more silent, because God is silent, and we encounter God in silence, in adoration. I think that the formation of the people of God in the liturgy is very important. We can show people the beauty, to be reverent, and to keep silent in the liturgy, in which our encounter with Christ is deepened.
During my time as prefect of the sacred liturgy [congregation], I learned that liturgy must be a very great moment, a very unique moment, to encounter God face-to-face and to be transformed by him as a child of God and as a true worshipper of God. Liturgy must be beautiful, it must be sacred, and it must be silent.
I think that we must be more careful, when we are gathered for the Eucharist at Mass, not to transform the sacred Mass into a spectacle or a drama, or a phenomenon of gathering people together because they are friends, but, rather, to worship God. And when we worship God silently, then God will transform our lives. We become like God.
St. Irenaeus said, “God has made man that man becomes God.” And the liturgy contributes to make us God. It is very important to really progress in sacred liturgy: not to let people create their own liturgy and desecrate the liturgy, but to make it more powerful as the presence of God among men.
You have spoken about the liturgy and have spoken also on silence, and the importance of silence in encountering God, but you're also writing a lot about freedom of religion and, specifically, the freedom to worship, to be able to celebrate the liturgy. Where do you see the greatest threats to religious freedom? How should the Church, and also how should modern democracies and modern societies, react to this threat?
Certainly, threats against religious liberty take many forms. Countless martyrs continue to die for the faith around the world. But religious liberty is under threat in the West, too. It is not often an overt threat, or hatred of the faith. But there is an implicit bias against Christianity. We often encounter laws created by governments, against the law of God — that is, they threaten liberty; they threaten worshipping God. Anyway, recently, through the pandemic, draconian restrictions on the Mass were widely accepted, without objection. Certainly, it is good to protect human life. But not to consider what was given up, that is hardly to live at all.
Recall from the Book of Exodus that the 10 plagues, the departure of the Hebrews, and the destruction of Egypt occurred so that God’s people might have the freedom to worship him properly. Religious liberty is not to be taken for granted, or compromised or neglected. We are to assemble for the Holy Mass and to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. The Holy Mass is to receive the Lord as he commanded us. We cannot forget this. The Eucharist is the source and the summit of a Christian life. Adaptation is necessary at times. We’ll face more pandemics and other emergencies, and there will be debate concerning how best to address this in relation to the celebration of the Eucharist. This is good. Liberal democracy requires debate, but never can the importance of our worship of God be forgotten or neglected in the course of debate. Liberal democracy must not forget God. Liberal democracies must also respect the nonnegotiable value that is worshipping God.
Christ presents us that freedom: freedom from sin, freedom to worship in spirit and right and truth. We must not risk this freedom by neglecting the sacraments. Many have died during the pandemic without the sacraments. We were obliged to suspend Eucharistic celebration for months. But man cannot only care for his body; he must also care for his soul. So the soul has been neglected.
I think that the Church must fight to preserve its liberty of worshipping God and practicing the sacraments, for the salvation of men and for the salvation of humanity, because the Mass is powerful for everybody. It is not only powerful for the Christian. The Mass has the power to save all humankind. So we have to fight to maintain our freedom of religion and worship. We must not risk this freedom by neglecting the sacrament by which Christ sustains us. And he sends his love into our lives and conducts us into the divine life.
I will fight again and again to maintain the liberty of the Church to conduct the people of God to worship God, like Moses did for the Hebrew people.
That is why, I think, I tried to write this book. It is a comment on sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, priesthood and even the sacrament of the sick. We have to talk not only about life in this world, but about the life with God in eternity. This is evangelization: to bring people to God, not to fight only for canceling all poverty, all misery, all human poverty, but to bring the people of God to the felicity, to God, who is the real richness. God is our real richness and the unique richness we have in the world. So we have to fight for that. No, we have to fight for spiritual life. Because God has made us: body and soul
You also mentioned in your book that the ultimate weapon in the spiritual battle is penance. But we see that many refuse or ignore the gift of confession. What is your explanation for this?
Well, confession appears at the very beginning of the Gospel. Jesus said to us: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” At the beginning, Christ commanded [all people] to confess, to repent. Repentance is the beginning of divine life, the restoration of our friendship with God. The sacrament of confession is a wonderful gift by which God, again and again, restores us in his grace. We ought to welcome in our hearts sorrow for our sins, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, and receive the liberty from sin that comes with repentance. We ought to make a habit of this, turning, again and again, day after day, to the Lord, escaping, quickly, the despair, the deception of this world.
Rather than embracing the gift of confession, too many have come to resent it. In doing this, they resent the truth: That is the truth, that they are a sinner in need of God's mercy. Unfortunately, we have lost, in recent decades, the sense of sin. Many do not accept that man is a sinner. There is no sin today.
Perhaps some of the faithful resent confession because they cannot submit to the authority of priests. So many of those whose reputations are ruined by the atrocity of sexual abuse committed by a few priests. But these rebellions are mistaken because confession has nothing to do with a personal worthiness of the priest. The priest can be a sinner. But through the priest, it is Christ who forgives. So we do not have to look at the priest who is a sinner. Through the priest, it is Christ who forgives. We all require his forgiveness. And he would pass through the priests.
And no mistrust or resentment of the priest should stop us from going to confession. We know that St. Augustine said, when priests baptize, it is Christ who baptizes. When Judas baptized, it was Christ who baptized. If a sinner baptizes in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit, it is Christ who baptizes. So it doesn’t matter that the priest is insufficient. We have to go to him and recognize our sins, and God will forgive us.
So I think the main problem today is this spread of bad news that many priests have been in very scandalous situations by abusing little children. But it’s very few priests who did that. But we have so many priests who are very faithful! Let’s go to them and confess our sins. This is a great weapon to fight against the evil present in in our lives and the life of the world. So I think this is the ultimate weapon that God gave us: the confession of sins, to have forgiveness for our sins.
If you allow me to come back to the Eucharist: Why is the celebration of the Eucharist the center of spiritual life?
The good news is that Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became man so that we might be restored, through him, in friendship with the Father. The definitive act by which he revealed to us his mission and the foundation of our friendship with God is his passion, his death, his resurrection. At the Last Supper, Jesus established the Eucharist, anticipating this definitive act in the very last hours before he would fulfill the earthly mission. He prefigured it and made it something to be perpetuated, forever, among the community of his friends, that is, the Church.
This is why the Eucharist is the source and the summit of Christian life. It is the self-revelation of God upon the cross and the means by which he restores us to friendship with his Father. It is our participation in his sufferings, in his self-sacrifice, by which we are configured into him, progressively transformed by his grace. The sacrament of the Eucharist recapitulates all of salvation history and draws us into salvation. The Eucharist is really allowing God to enter in my life, and I enter into his life, and we become one real person; we become one reality: “Who(ever) eats my Body, he dwells in me and I in him.”
So the Eucharist really is the center of our life. The Eucharist is our life. We have to celebrate the Eucharist, with faith, with sacredness, with love and total confidence in Jesus Christ, who gives himself to us. The Eucharist is the major sacrament, the most holy sacrament that Christ gave us for our lives. We priests and bishops must celebrate the Eucharist with holiness, with sacredness, so that we can really enter into the love of Jesus Christ and let Jesus Christ enter into our lives. This is the great sacrament we have, and we have to keep this sacrament in very great respect, very great love.
And, we thank you for having published my book in which I reflect, especially, on sacraments, on prayer and on the cross. The cross is really the pillar on which we have to build our life. I most especially say that a Christian life must be built on three pillars: crux, hostia and virgo (the cross, the Host, and the Virgin Mary). These are the three pillars on which you have to build a Christian life.
I encourage you to build your life on these three pillars. And you will see how beautiful it is to be a Christian and how beautiful it is to be in the family of God, that is, the Church.