Last week I had the great honour of hosting Cardinal Robert Sarah, one of the Vatican’s most senior officials. 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.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI named him head of “Cor Unum,” the department that administers the practical charitable works of the Pope, and created him a cardinal. In 2014, Pope Francis made him responsible for liturgical oversight, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
In introducing him in Kingston, I quoted Benedict XVI who, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), wrote:
“The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility [mission]: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”
How improbable that a boy from a remote Guinean village, whose parents were counted among the first Christians of his land, would take senior positions in the three Vatican departments dealing with the triplex mission of the Church – evangelization, liturgy, and charity?
He is a man who knows kerygma-martyria from personal experience. His family heard the kerygma preached to them for the first time, and they were touched by its converting power. He has faced martyrdom firsthand. He knows the practical works of charity amid the poverty inflicted on his country by communism. And he transparently encounters God in the liturgy, as we beheld when he offered the Holy Mass at Newman House and in the parish of Sacred Heart of Mary on Wolfe Island.
Here is one observation that struck me and many others. After being introduced to speak, Cardinal Sarah does not ascend the podium and begin speaking immediately. If he is in church, quite the opposite. He makes an extended genuflection toward the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. At the cathedral in Toronto, many people said that they found this moment of reverential prayer and recollection more powerful than the talk that followed.
When Cardinal Sarah visited Newman House, after Mass he was to bless some new statues. When I entered the room, I found everyone completely silent; the Cardinal was already there, recollected in prayer, and everyone followed suit. Cardinal Sarah is not rare of course; many churchmen have a spirit of interior recollection. He does, though, have a most unusual ability to convey that recollection to others.
Many of us charged with leading people in prayer get on with the “leading” so quickly that we rush past the prayer. The words come fast and fluent, but less space is left to the prayerful encounter with the divine. We would do well to recollect ourselves, to take a moment of silence – Cardinal Sarah’s most recent book is entitled The Power of Silence – in order to remember that we aim to lift our minds and hearts to God, not just to talk to one another.
Originally published in Convivium.