Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in Rome on Nov. 25, 2014. / Paul Badde.
Robert Cardinal Sarah on Wednesday rejected claims that he and Pope Francis are enemies, in his first interview since stepping down from his Vatican post.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper published March 10, the Guinean cardinal said that he had “tried to be a loyal, obedient, and humble servant of the truth of the Gospel.”
“Even though some journalists continually repeat the same nonsense,” he told Il Foglio, “I have never opposed the pope.”
An English translation of the cardinal’s interview was published on Wednesday by the National Catholic Register.
On Feb. 20, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Sarah’s resignation as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Sarah had submitted his resignation to the pope when he turned 75 in June 2020, as Church norms dictate.
Before his resignation, Sarah was the most senior African prelate at the Vatican, appointed head of the liturgy department by Pope Francis in November 2014.
Sarah said in his interview that when Pope Francis told him that he had decided to accept the resignation, “I immediately replied that I was happy and grateful for his decision.”
“I am happy and proud to have served three popes — St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis — in the Roman Curia for more than 20 years,” the cardinal continued.
“Some people insinuate without reason or even being able to provide concrete and credible proof that we were enemies, it’s not true! Pope Francis likes frankness. We have always worked together with simplicity, despite the fantasies of journalists,” he said.
Sarah criticized the idea that his former role leading the Congregation for Divine Worship was “an honorary position, but of little importance.”
“I believe that the responsibility for the liturgy puts us at the heart of the Church, of her raison d’être. The Church is neither an administration nor a human institution. The Church mysteriously prolongs Christ’s presence on earth,” he said.
Sarah quoted the Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum concilium, which says that the liturgy is “a sacred action surpassing all others” and “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”
“The Church exists to give men to God and to give God to men,” Sarah explained. “This is precisely the role of the liturgy: to worship God and to communicate divine grace to souls. When the liturgy is sick, the whole Church is in danger because her relationship with God is not only weakened but deeply damaged.”
He recalled Benedict XVI’s comment that the crisis of the Church is “essentially a crisis of the liturgy because it is a crisis of the relationship with God.”
“If God is not at the center of the Church’s life, then she is in danger of death,” the cardinal said.
Sarah also emphasized that the liturgy is about God, not the community or individual. This reality, he said, is expressed well when the liturgy is said ad orientem, meaning with the priest facing the altar, or liturgical East, rather than the people.
The cardinal also explained why he thought that silence was important in the liturgy.
“When man remains silent, he leaves a place for God,” he said. “On the contrary, when the liturgy becomes chatty, it forgets that the cross is its center, it organizes itself around the microphone.”
He said these questions are crucial, “because they determine the place we give to God,” and lamented that they had become “ideological.”
Factional struggles within the Church are a source of suffering for him, he said. “Too often we act as if everything is a question of politics, power, influence and the unjustified imposition of a hermeneutic of Vatican II that totally breaks and is irreversibly at odds with Tradition.”
He declared it “false” that he was opposed to the Second Vatican Council because he spoke of a sense of the sacred in the liturgy.
“I don’t believe that the struggle between progressives and conservatives has any meaning in the Church. These categories are political and ideological,” he said, adding that “the Church is not a field of political struggle.”
“The only thing that counts is to seek God ever more deeply, to meet him there and humbly kneel down to adore him.”
It was unfortunate, Cardinal Sarah said, that there are “ideologues” who set the pre-Council Church against the post-Council Church.
According to the cardinal, these people “are dividers; they are doing the work of the devil.”
“The Church is one, without rupture, without changing course, because her Founder ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,’” he said. “She goes towards God, she directs us towards him. From the profession of faith of St. Peter to Pope Francis through Vatican II, the Church turns us towards Christ.”
Now that he is retired, Sarah said that he intended to continue working and was happy to have more time to pray and read.
“I will continue to write, to speak, to travel. Here in Rome, I continue to receive priests and faithful from all over the world,” he said.
Sarah will continue to serve as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, where he said he saw “with immense joy how the Church is bursting with holiness.”
“More than ever the Church needs bishops who speak clearly, free and faithful to Jesus Christ and to the doctrinal and moral teachings of his Gospel,” he said. “I intend to continue this mission and even amplify it.”