Cardinal Sarah: Fidelity to God and Family Is Africa’s Most Precious Treasure

The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments discussed his World Meeting of Families keynote address, as well as crucial issues on the agenda for the upcoming synod at the Vatican.

Cardinal Robert Sarah
Cardinal Robert Sarah (photo: CNA/Paul Badde)

“Africa, and therefore the Church, will save the family.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah, 70, of Guinea, is the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and on Sept. 23, he will present a keynote address at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. During the tumultuous debate leading up to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican, he has challenged efforts to change Church discipline that bars divorced-and-remarried Catholics from receiving the Eucharist.

In August, Ignatius Press released God or Nothing, a book-length interview with Cardinal Sarah conducted by Nicolas Diat. The new paperback offers a moving account of Cardinal Sarah’s childhood faith, the fruit of his parents' conversion to Catholicism and the family's contact with the Holy Ghost Fathers, a French missionary order that established a thriving mission in his small village in the African nation of Guinea. God or Nothing also provides a forum for the cardinal’s views on liturgy, reform of the Roman Curia, marriage catechesis and an aggressive secular agenda from the West that threatens the developing world.

On Sept. 10, Cardinal Sarah, who, from 2001-2010, was secretary for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and, from 2010-2014, served as president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (the pope’s personal charitable organization), discussed key issues before the synod and the Church in Africa’s opposition “to any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the magisterium” in an email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.


You are giving a keynote address at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. What will be your message?

The title of my address is “The Light of the Family in the Dark World.” From the beginning of creation, man and woman are created as the first human family, called to make a gift of self and to reflect the love of the Trinity. Sin, as the darkness that entered into the world, is the root of the breakdown in the God-given understanding of family. People, even of the same sex, joining themselves at will, cohabitation, fear of openness to life, abortion, separation and divorce: This is why the family more than ever today needs Christ, who is the light that “shines in the darkness.” The acknowledgement and the acceptance of the existence of the roots of sin in our hearts are wisdom and the beginning of healing of the human family, in order to receive the mercy of God.

Humanly speaking, it is impossible for us to face and overcome the many problems and challenges within the family. But Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, who teaches and strengthens each person to go out of himself to love God and neighbor to the end. The Christian family is called to give this testament: that love to the end is possible! Because of this, the Christian family, today more than ever, needs to become the wellspring of faith, hope and love. Thus, the family becomes the first evangelizer, spreading this love to the world.


The 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops will address pastoral solutions for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, and some believe the Church will allow them to receive the Eucharist. In your book, you reject that possibility: “No one, not even the pope, can set pastoral ministry in opposition to doctrine.” What does it mean to “set pastoral ministry in opposition to doctrine,” and do you believe most synod delegates agree with your position?

Look, this is not about agreeing with me or with someone else. It is about adhering with one’s words and life to God’s law. If priests, bishops and also the synod fathers consider doctrine as if looking through an antique store’s window and not as a living body, I fear that they are betraying their vocation. Doctrine is not a set of moral precepts.

Doctrine is a set of teachings that come to us from sacred Scriptures, the Word of God and Tradition. Doctrine is a person! It is Jesus in his words. How can we think that priests should separate pastoral practice from doctrine as though the Gospel is an expression of something that is detached from reality? Either our faith is founded on the encounter with a Person, who is God made man through his son Jesus and, therefore, on a testimony that must be renewed every day by the death and resurrection of Christ, or our faith is false and is founded upon the idols of modernity.

Many think about getting rid of doctrine because they allegedly do not consider it to be adaptable to the times. ...

So, it is believed that the “opening of [the doors of] the Church,” which Pope Francis constantly calls us to, may mean the watering down of what we believe in to the thought of contemporary society that is secularized and decadent. It is falsely believed [the Church has] to adapt the teaching of Christ to the times. But Christ did not come to pander to society. He came to save humanity from its fall and to bring Truth and to personally and profoundly change each one of us. The encounter with Christ changes the lives of those who love him. Truth and the dogmas of faith compel us to raise the bar, to aim high and to live every day to become saints.

Relativism is easy because nothing in it has value and worth; it leads to a disengagement from life and, in essence, to turning man into a beast.


While some argue that the fresh challenges facing the family require new pastoral solutions, you say, “The Son of God gives the strength and the grace to live a married life in the new dimension of the kingdom of God.” What is this new dimension?

The new dimension of the kingdom of God is communion with God and his Church. Today, the real novelty is an “old” novelty: It is the encounter with Christ through the Gospel. It has the same value today as it had 2,000 years ago. This truth is proclaimed with words and also with works. And the great work that unites a man and a woman is marriage in Christ and with Christ.

Marriage is openness towards life and therefore towards children. No one denies that the family faces difficulties. Perhaps in contemporary society, these challenges are stronger and more poisonous, because the attack on Christianity and the Church is obvious.

However, I am convinced that men and women, especially young people, desire great things. We have to accompany them towards a path of holiness, not making them believe that God’s love is impossible and not to give up because the commitment is too great.

Let us remember that Christian marriage between a man and a woman is an institution created directly by God, and the family is a pre-Christian institution. For this reason, gay marriage is a “defeat for humanity,” as Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, pointed out after the referendum in Ireland. Because the family has always existed from the beginning for the transmission of life; but if this transmission is broken, how can that institution be called “family”? A homosexual union is not in Christ and with Christ.

The stakes of the next synod, then, are not the different forms of the family, [though] many would like to see ratified their own weaknesses and sins. The real stake of the synod, which also includes reaffirming the beauty and unity of the family, is: What type of man [do] we want in the present and future? In this debate on the family, God is the center. He is the starting point, and his Word guides us. And this, if anything, we have to go back to. The rest are, like we say in Italian, “farmyard quarrels.”


In your book, you “solemnly state that the Church in Africa is staunchly opposed to any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the magisterium.” What have you heard from African Church leaders and the laity regarding efforts to change Church discipline, and is there anything unique to the African experience that has led to this strong stand?

I have a conviction: It will be Africa, and therefore the Church, who will save the family. Marriage between a man and a woman is also marriage between man and the Church, who is the Bride of Christ. Destroying the first union is destroying also the second. Therefore, Africa will not yield a millimeter on this!

Africa is part of God’s plan from the beginning. Just look at Revelation: When God chose to establish a covenant with man, he began in Egypt. It was Africa that saved Jesus: Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict against male children and against Jesus himself. And, again, it was an African, Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry his cross on Calvary.

So, from the beginning, God wanted to involve Africa in the plan of salvation of the world. Africa certainly has many problems, but the Church in Africa is characterized by a vitality and dynamism that is unknown in the West today. In secularized Europe and in all the so-called developed countries, wealth has perverted men to such an extent that they do not think in any other way than to satisfy their physical and carnal desires. They only count on money and material success, and if they are not successful, they fall into depression and sadness.

In Africa, poverty is still very strong in many of her countries, yet Africans exude happiness and joy. God is their wealth and their hope. Obviously, they also aim to combat economic misery, but not to enter into the spiritual poverty of those who have driven God out of their lives.

In this deep anthropological crisis, Africa, despite her poverty, and indeed because of this poverty, which is the poverty of Christ in the Gospel, can give to the Church her most precious treasure: fidelity to God and to the Gospel, her love of life and the family.


Income inequality has emerged as a major issue for the Church and the world. You suggest that any response to the plight of the poor must go beyond economic policy debates and deal with deeper issues facing mankind, including “the serious question of the eclipse of God.” What do you mean?

During my years as president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, I often stressed that the Church must not fight against poverty but, rather, wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution. There is a fundamental distinction between destitution and poverty. Spiritual destitution is the dire consequence [that follows] when man rejects God in his life and is left to himself.

[It arises from] the false illusion that man can do everything by himself, and it brings misery.

On the other hand, material destitution leads to a subhuman sort of life that is the source of great suffering.

We have to remember that, in the fight against destitution, there is the important dimension of restoring to man his vocation as a child of God and his joy in belonging to the family of God. If we leave aside the religious aspect, we fall into a kind of philanthropy or secular humanitarian activity that forgets the Gospel.


The Holy Ghost Fathers, a French missionary order, inspired your faith as a child. Why was their missionary effort so effective, and what can it teach us about spreading the faith in missionary territory in the West?

The Holy Ghost Fathers in 1912 came to my village of birth, Ourous, to preach the Gospel and establish a Catholic mission. These missionaries made great sacrifices and suffered many deprivations, without complaining, and gave of themselves with great generosity.

I owe my Christian faith to the dedication of the Holy Ghost Fathers. It was also a Holy Ghost missionary, Father Marcel Bracquemond, whom God has used to reveal to me my priestly vocation. I will always admire these men who have left their families and homelands to bring the love of God to the furthest corner of the Earth.

Every evening, the fathers gathered the children near a large cross set up in the mission courtyard. Under the cross, the missionaries taught us the Catholic faith. Gathered around this cross, we were given our cultural and spiritual education. The cross in the courtyard, then, came to symbolize the heart and center of the village.

The moments seated around this great cross to learn about the Catholic faith would prepare us for the revolutionary persecution that the Church in my country would face in the following years of its history. It’s thanks to these missionaries, who made me understand that the cross is the center of the world, the heart of mankind and the place where our stability is anchored.

One of my most profound impressions of the Holy Ghost Fathers was their faithful prayer life. Their daily life was filled with moments of prayer with the Lord; whether it was celebrating Mass or individual and community prayers, they devotedly prayed. They were completely consumed by the fire of God’s love. They were great and holy missionaries, thanks to their deep and persevering prayer life.

So a good prayer life is the essential element to successfully spreading the faith to any part of the world. Even Our Lord, in the discourse of the Last Supper, reminded us of this important truth: “I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for, apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).


You were drawn to a priestly vocation before you were a teenager. Today, Africa is sending priests to the West. How do you explain the vocation boom in Africa?

My priestly vocation began with the Eucharist. Besides giving credit to my Christian upbringing, it was through love of prayer and the faithful attendance at daily Mass that helped me to discern a vocation to the priesthood. Through prayer and the sacraments, the faithful are given the grace to enter into a personal and intimate relationship with God, where God reveals himself and his self-giving love to us.

Therefore, one of the spiritual fruits from this loving relationship is our desire to love as Jesus has loved us, to give our lives completely to God.

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is what our Savior has done for us, and this is what we are moved to do as we enter into this loving relationship with God. When we help to foster and encourage this personal relationship with Jesus, whether a priest helping his faithful or parents teaching their children, I am sure that there will be an increase in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

In short, to quote one of the Holy Ghost Fathers who have brought the Gospel to my native land, “I would not be at all surprised to see vocations take shape among our children. I think that vocations are the reward for serious training in the family and in the mission.”


The development of a “rich prayer life is a difficult school,” you write. Why is it so hard, and how can we learn to love prayer?

At times, it is very difficult to pray. Even St. Teresa of Avila had trouble at prayer. She admitted that she would shake the hourglass during her prayer to speed up the time.

Prayer is difficult because it requires silence, which is a path to close personal encounter with the silent but living presence of God within us. With the bombardment of different technologies and electronic gadgets in our society, there is so much noise and distractions in the world in which we live. We often have the tendency of doing a lot of things, talking and thinking a lot.

These obstacles very often hinder God from living, acting, moving and expressing himself within us. We fill our soul, God’s house, with so much noise. God is not in the storm, the earthquake or the fire, but in the murmur of a light breeze.

True prayer also requires us to cultivate and preserve a certain virginity of heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We must not live and grow in interior or exterior commotion, in dissipation and worldly distractions; some pleasures divide, tear apart, separate and scatter the center of our life. Silence, spiritual purity, interior silence and a necessary solitude are the necessary ingredients to a fruitful prayer life.


Secularization in the West, you say, is an attempt “to lock everything up in this world, in an aggressive rejection of transcendental relations.” How should Catholic families resist the tendency to “lock up everything in this world”?

Our society is organized and lives as though God did not exist. When man’s focus has shifted to the economy, technology and the immediate satisfaction of material happiness, God becomes distant.

Facing these challenges, the Church is called to radiate Christ exclusively. He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Indeed, all this must begin in every Catholic family, which is a small domestic church. The Catholic family must once again be centered on prayer and the sacraments, where God becomes once again the foundation that binds their love and helps them to overcome these challenges.

I mentioned earlier how the cross was at the center of my native village, where we were enriched with lessons about our faith and how this has been a source of strength and motivation during the difficult times of persecution. In one of his letters providing spiritual guidance, St. Francis de Sales once recalled an interesting observation during one of his visits to a rural village in France. He noticed a woman going across the yard to draw water from a well. He also observed that, before lifting the bucket filled to the brim with water, she placed a piece of wood in it. The saint curiously asked why she would put a piece of wood into the bucket of water. The woman reacted, surprised, and quickly replied, “To keep the water from spilling … to keep it steady.” Concluding his story in the letter, he advised, “So when your heart is distressed and agitated, put the cross into its center to keep it steady.”

This spiritual advice of the saint is still valid during these difficult times, where the Catholic family is under attack, I believe that families must decide to leave aside worldly distractions and put at the center of their lives the cross of Jesus. In this way, the presence of God and his love will help them to weather any difficulty or challenge that life may place in their path.