Cardinal Sarah: A prophet of our times


Catholic Herald, 18 July 2019

The Church’s calendar includes the feast days of several of the great figures of the Old Testament (though observing them is not obligatory): King David on December 29, for example, or Melchisedek on August 26. Abraham’s falls on the same day as John Henry Newman’s, October 9.

The Prophet Elijah’s feast day is July 20. I know that because it is my priestly ordination anniversary. I can’t say that I detect much of Elijah in myself, but that might be said of another priest ordained on that date, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who celebrates 50 years of priestly ordination this year. (Cardinal Peter Turkson, the other African curial cardinal, was also ordained on July 20, but in 1975, six years after Cardinal Sarah.)

As a young archbishop in his native Guinea, still in his 30s, Sarah was marked out to be murdered by the tyrants who ruled his country and found him insufficiently submissive. Like Elijah, he knows what it means to be hunted by the king.

In recent years Cardinal Sarah has shifted towards a more prophetic mode, warning us in a series of books and speeches that an apostasy is underway in many parts of the world, and in some parts of the Church. There is something of Elijah – speaking for the faith in a time of infidelity – in that too. He shocked many with his address at the 2015 synod on the family, when he spoke of “Beasts of the Apocalypse” in regard to Western decadence and jihadist extremism. Cardinal Sarah never went to the finishing school where many bishops learn how to speak without ever giving offence.

That parrhesia (boldness in speech) might have endeared him to Pope Francis, who promoted him from the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which dispenses corporal works of charity on behalf of the pope, to the Congregation for Divine Worship. But since that appointment in 2014, Cardinal Sarah has been marginalised. The inner circle around the Holy Father only care for “prophetic” voices of a certain kind, the kind that, in the manner of progressive NGOs, hurl condemnatory judgments at big corporations and wealthy countries. Cardinal Sarah is not of that kind, as he pays rather too much attention to adherence to God in the household of faith. His book, after all, was called God or Nothing.

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