Cardinal Sarah, Man of Prayer


Convivium, 22 March 2018

Hosting Robert Cardinal Sarah last week, Convivium Editor in Chief Father Raymond de Souza found himself face to face with one of the great Christian lives of our day, and alongside the exemplification of prayerful disposition.

Last week I had the great honour of hosting Cardinal Robert Sarah, one of the Vatican’s most senior officials, in Kingston and Wolfe Island. He had given a public lecture at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral earlier in the week, and then joined us in Kingston for our annual St. John Fisher Dinner, and then to Wolfe Island to celebrate the centennial of my parish church.

Cardinal Sarah has led one of the great Christian lives of our time. Yet the lasting impression on the thousands who encountered him was not so much his biography or his message, but his capacity to lead people in prayer.

“Man is only great when on his knees before God,” he told us in Kingston.

That refers firstly to the man who kneels in prayer. But given that our dinner is named in honour of St. John Fisher – the English bishop executed by Henry VIII for refusing to assent to the king declaring himself head of the Church in England – I thought, too, of Bishop Fisher kneeling at the chopping block, his neck exposed to the executioner’s axe. That too was a moment of greatness, a moment we remember and honour nearly 500 years later.

Cardinal Sarah was born in a remote village in Guinea, in West Africa. His parents converted to the Catholic faith in response to missionaries from France, the Holy Ghost Fathers. Robert Sarah was among the first native priests of his country.

In 1979, at age 34, he was named the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church. His predecessor as Archbishop of Conakry was imprisoned by the Marxist dictatorship of Sekou Touré. Sarah, the young archbishop, did not flinch from confronting the regime. The result was predictable, for Touré was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands during his regime. He ordered the assassination of Sarah, and scheduled it for April 1984. Providence intervened: Touré himself died after emergency heart surgery in March 1984. Sarah would live to serve another day.

Indeed, many more years. In 2001, after more than 20 years as Archbishop of Conakry, he was called to Rome by St. John Paul II to serve as deputy of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the department responsible for overseeing the vast mission territories stretching around the world.

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