07 October 2016, The Tablet

Cardinal Sarah presents counter-vision to Francis as he launches new book

The Guinean prelate's latest interview shows he has no plans to back down

After being reprimanded by Pope Francis over the summer for calling on priests to face east while saying Mass, Cardinal Robert Sarah is refusing to back down and is becoming a rallying point of opposition to this papacy. 

The Vatican’s liturgy chief, who has just released a new book calling for more silence in Church, is once again speaking out about his desire for the liturgy to be celebrated by clergy turning their backs to the congregation.

“It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, ‘ad Dominum', toward the Lord”, the cardinal insisted this week in an interview discussing his new book with French magazine “La Nef”.

Meanwhile Francis - conscious that Cardinal Sarah is not on the same page as him - has just announced he will speak at the inauguration of the new academic year at Rome’s John Paul II institute, instead of the Guinean prelate, originally lined up to preside at the event. 

He will also have noted that last night, when Cardinal Sarah presented “La Force du Silence” at the French cultural centre in Rome it was attended by a number of senior Church figures known to be sceptical of the direction of Francis’ papacy.

Among them was Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Francis moved out of running the Church’s supreme court due to his alleged refusal to reform annulment laws, and Cardinal Franc Rode who once said the Pope was too left-wing and came from a part of the world where they “talk a lot but solve very few problems”.

For his part, Cardinal Sarah last night warned of the dangers of a “vain and narcissistic activism” where an obsession with “doing” replaces that of “praying”. And he stressed that the Church does not need structural reform but simply needs “re-centring” onto Christ.

It’s hard not to read this as a counter-vision to Francis, a Pope who is overhauling the Church’s headquarters in Rome and has called for a “renewal of structures” in order to improve efforts at evangelisation.

This is also a Pope who sets great store on Christians witnessing to their faith with concrete actions, something he’s led the way on by rescuing refugees from Lesbos, welcoming the homeless into the Sistine Chapel and visiting the earthquake-stricken Italian town of Amatrice. For Francis there is no contrast between “praying” and “doing”, rather it’s a case of one leading to the other.

There are, of course, many elements of Cardinal Sarah’s book which the Pope will applaud - after all Francis is a man who wakes up every morning at 4.45am for two hours of silent prayer.

The cardinal’s book is also a timely reminder of the importance of silence in Christian life. It draws on his experience of staying at the French Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse which was featured in a popular documentary film “Into Great Silence”.

But the cardinal and his book are also giving this message: that the Church under Francis is going in the wrong direction and needs to be re-set on more conservative lines. 

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