Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, smiles as he talks with guests at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast May 17 in Washington. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Cardinal Robert Sarah made out of the right stuff

  • June 23, 2016

Before a colleague mentioned the name of Cardinal Robert Sarah I had not heard of him. At the age of 34, the Guinea-born Sarah was made Archbishop of Conakry by Pope John Paul II. He was still a bambino (according to Pope Benedict XVI) when he was elevated to cardinal in 2010. 

In God or Nothing, Sarah relates his remarkable life story in conversation with French journalist Nicolas Die. It is more than an autobiography. Sarah speaks with candour and insight on many issues confronting the Church today, and he comments wisely and without affectation on growing up and serving the Church. 

For example, while a seminary student, his bishop wrongly accused him of certain misdemeanours. Bewildered and hurt, Sarah consulted his spiritual director, who told him: “Listen, Robert, I have known four bishops, and each had his faults, which can be difficult, and his virtues, which are very edifying. You will not be a priest for the bishop’s sake but for Christ and for the Church. You must continue serenely, with complete confidence, with and for Christ, with your bishop or in spite of him.” 

Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, was born in 1945 in Ouros, a small village in the northern corner of Guinea, adjacent to the Senegal border. In 1912 missionaries from the Holy Ghost Fathers had arrived from France and, despite opposition, malaria, persecution and hardship, established the Catholic Church in Guinea. Sarah credits the Holy Ghost priests as the decisive influence in his formation. He calls them “men of God who made great sacrifices and suffered many privations without ever complaining and with unending generosity.”

Sarah’s parents were baptized in 1947 and Sarah became an altar boy. The Holy Ghost Fathers provided his early education and, at 14, sent him to a junior seminary in Conakry, the capital city, about 500 km away. From there he went to seminaries in the Ivory Coast, Rome and Jerusalem, obtaining a PhD in early Church history.

In the 1970s Guinea fell under a Marxist regime headed by President Sekou Toure. Church property was confiscated, the archbishop of Conakry was imprisoned and many priests were exiled or executed. In the midst of this, Pope John Paul II asked Sarah to become archbishop of Conakry. At first Sarah wanted to decline — not because of the fate of the previous archbishop but because he was just 34. But he eventually concluded that his vow of obedience required him to accept.  

He chose as his Episcopal motto: “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians, 12:9). Five years later, when Toure died, secret police documents revealed a plot to arrest, torture and execute Sarah.

Sarah has worked closely with three Popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. In a chapter entitled “The Popes of a Lifetime” he offers insights into the personalities of each man.  

“John Paul II showed the glory of suffering. His pontificate was prodigious and, at the same time, crucified,” Sarah said.  

Benedict XVI was “the embodiment of gentleness, meekness, humility and God-fearing kindness …by the grace of God he will be canonized, venerated as a saint and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church.”  

On Francis, he said, “I find in him the true missionary impulse of St. Ignatius of Loyola …(Francis]) never hesitates to discern between good and evil.” 

By such leaders has the Catholic Church been preserved from the corrosive acid of postmodernism through the last half century. Although faltering in the West, the Church is thriving in what used to be called the “third world.”

As he looks ahead the three “most worrisome” issues facing the Church are the lack of priests, “gaps in clergy formation” and “confusion concerning the Church’s mission.”  The mission, Sarah emphasizes, is not social service but to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere. He remains confident Christ’s promise to preserve His Church to the end is unbreakable. 

Let us hope Sarah will remain in good health until the next conclave of cardinals is required, for he is made of the right stuff or, as the Italians say, papabile.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont. His latest book is Telling Lives.)

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