Cardinal Sarah’s Sober and Gentle View of Marriage

BOOK PICK: As the Church teaches, and the cardinal re-affirms, the home is where Our Lord himself began and where his Kingdom grows.

Book cover of Cardinal Robert Sarah.
Book cover of Cardinal Robert Sarah. (photo: Courtesy photo / Ignatuis)

Couples, Awaken Your Love!

Cardinal Robert Sarah; 

Ignatius Press, 2021


At the heart of the Catholic faith is the curious union of the gentle and the severe, of both domestic tranquility and spiritual combat. 

Think of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She always appears as a beautiful lady or even, in the case of Guadalupe, as a girl. She speaks politely, even tenderly to the visionaries. She uses diminutives for Juan Diego, calling him “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” She asks Bernadette to “grace” her by coming to visit. At the same time, she appears in Guadalupe to overthrow the demonic religion of the Aztecs. 

Some of her first words to Bernadette are bracing: “Penance, penance, penance.” She warns the Fatima children of an impending war and even shows them hell. Our Lady is ever the beautiful, gentle woman … stepping on the head of a snake.

Mary is simply an image of her Son, whose own life is characterized by that paradox of peace and strife. His birth brings the announcement of “peace on earth,” as well as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. He passes 30 years in the tranquility of Nazareth and the remaining three in controversy, persecution, and finally execution. His proclamation of the Kingdom involves words of great mercy and compassion, as well as severe rebukes and condemnations. 

This paradox of our faith characterizes Cardinal Sarah’s Couples, Awaken Your Love! (Ignatius Press, 2021), a collection of short reflections drawn from his 2019 retreat for married couples in Lourdes. The prefect emeritus of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments understands well both the beauty of marriage and family life as well as its central role in the spiritual combat for the Kingdom of God. 

Those familiar with the cardinal’s writings know him as an astute student and critic of the decline of the West. He knows that the decay of marriage and family are at the heart of our unraveling. Now, honest sociologists can point to all kinds of benefits from what we mistakenly call “traditional marriage (is there any other kind?), for both the spouses and the children. And as marriage and birth rates decline, their importance becomes more evident. 

But as a man of deep faith and prayer, Cardinal Sarah understands that the battle is not primarily or ultimately about policy or politics, or even about culture. The battle is about the transcendent dignity and purpose of marriage, an institution from God and meant to bring people to God; an institution that God entrusted to us as the template of salvation, of the marriage between Christ and the Church. After all, salvation itself is a matter of being made a participant in the marriage between Christ and the Church and of being introduced into kinship with God.

The family, moreover, has received the dignity of Our Lord’s own presence: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). That one line has bestowed upon marriage and family a surpassing dignity. Certainly, there are many earthly benefits from strong marriages and healthy families. But that the eternal Son of God came into the world and spent most of his earthly life “subject” to Joseph and Mary conveys more about the importance of marriage and family than anything else can.

For Cardinal Sarah, the stakes are high. Love itself needs to be saved. “Jesus came to save human love,” and married couples are called to participate with him in that mission. Thus, they are at the center of the great conflict between good and evil. “Yes, we are indeed talking about a battle … of life and death…[T]he soil is now prepared for the final revolution, which corresponds also to the ‘final combat’ mentioned by the Book of Revelation.” Strong words. But they simply echo the warnings of St. John Paul II’s 1994 Letter to Families

“[T]he family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good…”

This is high octane stuff. So, how are couples to respond? The cardinal’s solution is not to propose policy changes or encourage more activism in the public square. Those things have their place, to be sure. But the public square and the culture are not the heart of the battle. Neither Pope St. John Paul II nor Cardinal Sarah meant that couples and families must man the barricades in the culture wars. They meant something at once more obscure and more powerful.

Cardinal Sarah points us (as the Church has ever done) to holiness, silence, and prayer. That’s where couples derive their strength, both to overcome forces of evil and to grow the Kingdom of God. The great and frightening battle is won by way of marriage and family life. The home is where Our Lord himself began and where his Kingdom grows.

As such, the cardinal appends to his reflections a section on couples’ prayers. Now, to the secular reader, that might seem an out of place pious thought in comparison to the gravity of things that preceded. But the Catholic heart knows that the battle is always in these small things. 

Thus, Cardinal Sarah lays out a schedule and prayers to be said daily by couples. He knows how grave the situation is. He also knows that the Kingdom of God’s power lies in the domestic church. The great spiritual battles are won in the little battles that couples and families fight so that they can be places of prayer, forgiveness, communion, and love.

We are all aware that the family is in the devil’s crosshairs and at the center of so much cultural decay. We are less aware that the family is not defenseless, that the very living out of the truth of marriage and family is itself a powerful thing for the Church and the world. Cardinal Sarah brings this out by giving a sober assessment of our times and a beautiful exhortation to the simple truth of married love that triumphs.