Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Angelic Stubbornness

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Angelic Stubbornness

Article excerpt

Angelic Stubbornness God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith BY ROBERT CARDINAL SARAH INTERVIEWED BY NICOLAS DIAT IGNATIUS, 285 PAGES, $17.95

On the night of April 18, 1978, a visitor brought an unexpected message to a young priest named Robert Sarah: Pope Paul VI had appointed him archbishop of Conakry and expected a response as soon as possible. When Sarah began to protest, the messenger replied, "I will be back for your written response in three days. In any case, if you refuse, Archbishop Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo will remain in prison." Sékou Touré, the dictator of Guinea, had made it clear that the sitting archbishop would not be released until he had been replaced. The messenger added: "You cannot refuse to obey the pope, who trusts in you."

Sarah immediately left for a hermitage, where he fasted, alone with the Eucharist and the Word of God. After prostrating himself before the Lord for three days, he wrote a letter to the pope, saying that while he was unworthy, he would accept. "As if in a strange dream," Sarah was named archbishop at the age of thirty-four.

Sarah is now touted as a possible successor to Pope Francis. We do not know where he will end up, but Nicolas Diat's book-length interview tells us where he comes from. It was in his childhood years, spent in Ourous, one of the smallest and most neglected villages in the mountainous heartlands of Guinea, that Sarah first learned to pray. He was certainly influenced by the ancient religious rites of his ancestors, the Coniagui people, but it was the Holy Ghost Fathers, French missionaries, who stood at the center of his childhood. Every evening, they would gather the children of the village near a large cross set up in the mission courtyard; "It was around this cross that we received our cultural and spiritual education." As the sun set, the Fathers taught the catechism of Pius X, first in the Coniagui language, then in French. (At school they followed the same curriculum as little French children, and were taught that their ancestors were Gauls.) The children asked questions; the Holy Ghost Fathers talked about their assignments in other countries. Then they would sing evening prayer and return to their huts.

His mother did not know what seminary was, and his father insisted that "a black man could not become a priest of the Catholic Church," but Sarah never questioned his vocation. On the day of his ordination in 1969, he stood alone. All of his fellow seminarians from Guinea had gradually left the seminary. While he decided that he would be of greatest service to his country as a secular priest, Sarah never lost his attraction to contemplative life. Prayer is his "heartbeat," he says, the "precious time in which everything is done, everything is regenerated, and God acts to configure us to Himself."

Nearly every one of Sarah's answers to Diat centers on prayer. When asked about "the most worrisome signs for the future of the Church," he replies that "seminarians and priests are not doing enough to nourish their interior life." When asked about how to understand "reform," the cardinal explains that reform is, of course, an ongoing necessity, but it is not just a matter of reorganizing structures. "The Church," he says, "is reformed when the baptized march more resolutely toward holiness, allowing themselves to be recreated in the likeness of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the contagion of sanctity can transform the Church from within." In short, "Prayer is the greatest need of the contemporary world."

These are not pious evasions. Sarah speaks frankly on public issues such as gender theory, abortion, and euthanasia. …

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