Cardinal Robert Sarah has offered a damning critique of the state of the Western world as a society that has substituted the "maddest ideologies" for God.
In a wide-ranging homily in Chartres cathedral, he told pilgrims who had walked for three days from Paris, as well as the Bishop of Chartres, Philippe Christory: “Let’s look around us! Western society has chosen to establish itself without God. Witness how it is now delivered to the flashy and deceptive lights of a consumer society: to profit at all costs, and frenzied individualism.”
He was speaking on Monday, the new feast day of Mary, Mother of the Church. He also touched on issues of priesthood, priestly celibacy, and offered bracing guidance to young Christians.
In an analysis that in many respects echoed the judgements of Pope Francis, he said: “Western society has become like a drunken boat in the night. She does not have enough love to take in children, to protect them beginning from their mother’s womb, to protect them from the aggression of pornography.
“Deprived of the light of God, Western society no longer knows how to respect its elderly, accompany unto death its sick, make room for the poorest and the weakest.”
The emptiness of Western society, said, leaves a vacuum that is filled with the “maddest ideologies”.
A Western society without God can become the cradle of an ethical and moral terrorism more virulent and more destructive than Islamist terrorism,” he continued. “Remember that Jesus told us, ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. (Matt. 10, 28).
This led Cardinal Sarah to a reflection on how a priest should see his priesthood in times like these. How should he be “pastoral”?
Pope Francis has emphasised – as recently as in his choice of new cardinals announced on Pentecost Sunday – that he is first and foremost seeking pastors. An example might be the appointment of the papal almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who oversees the distribution of food to migrants living in camps in Rome, and regularly visits the elderly and others who are in need.
While Cardinal Sarah would hardly distance himself from this approach, his emphasis on Monday was on how to be pastoral in relation to the wider society. Who will lead so many “wayward souls, lost, sad, worried and lonely” to the light? he asked.
“Are we going to leave them to be delivered to error, to hopeless nihilism, or to aggressive Islamism? We must proclaim to the world that our hope has a name: Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world and of humanity! We can no longer be silent!”
He then approached the question of how this could be done. Emphasising that “to act according to the truth is first to put God at the centre of our lives”, he urged his listeners: “Make the commitment to keep a few minutes of silence every day in order to turn to God, to tell him ‘Lord reign in me! I give you all my life!’ ”
“Darkness feeds on the incessant noise of this world,” he said, “which prevents us from turning to God.”
Speaking to priests in particular, and in a remark that echoed the words of Pope Francis at the start of his pontificate, he said: “There is the danger that we regard ourselves as ‘social workers’. Then, we would not bring the Light of God to the world, but our own light, which is not that which men expect from us.”
In March 2013, on the day after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis said: "If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down."
However, Cardinal Sarah immediately went on to say: “What the world expects of the priest is God and the Light of his Word proclaimed without ambiguity or falsification.” “Ambiguity” is a criticism levelled at Pope Francis with regard to remarks he has made, or reportedly made, on issues to do with communion for the divorced and remarried, communion for non-Catholic spouses of Catholics, homosexuality, and the existence of hell.
Cardinal Sarah then spoke more specifically as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on issues to do with the liturgy.
“Do not invent anything in the liturgy,” the cardinal told the priests in the congregation. “Let us receive everything from God and from the Church. Do not look for show or success. The liturgy teaches us: To be a priest is not above all to do many things. It is to be with the Lord, on the Cross! The liturgy is the place where man meets God face to face.”
Cardinal Sarah has been rebuffed by Pope Francis for calling on priests to celebrate the Mass ad orientem (facing east). His reference to this controversy was oblique: “In the ordinary form, just as in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, the essential thing is to turn to the Cross, to Christ, our East, our Everything and our only Horizon!”
He wnt on to offer a passionate defence of priestly celibacy. “The plan, again advanced by some, to detach celibacy from the priesthood by conferring the sacrament of the Order on married men (“viri probati”) for, they say, ‘pastoral reasons or necessities’, would have serious consequences, in fact, to definitively break with the Apostolic Tradition. We would to manufacture a priesthood according to our human dimension, but without perpetuating, without extending the priesthood of Christ, obedient, poor and chaste,” he warned.
In March last year Francis raised the prospect of lifting the celibacy rule when he told the German weekly Die Zeit: “We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities.” Later that year he raised the possibility of married men in Brazil becoming priests. He has also said that the principle of celibacy for priests is a discipline, rather than a dogma.
The priest’s job, Cardinal Sarah said, was “always to be a sign of contradiction”. “Remind all that only the crucified Christ reveals the true meaning of freedom,” he urged, quoting from the 1993 encyclical of Pope St John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. “With Christ, set free liberty that is today chained by false human rights, all oriented towards the self-destruction of man.”
Addressing parents, he warned: “Being a father and mother in today’s world is an adventure full of suffering, obstacles and worries. The Church says to you: ‘Thank you’! Yes, thank you for the generous gift of yourselves! Have the courage to raise your children in the light of Christ. You will sometimes have to fight against the prevailing wind and endure the mockery and contempt of the world. But we are not here to please the world!”
Turning to young people, he explained exactly how one should distinguish between two “worlds”, only one of which should be combated and opposed.
“The world we must not love, to which we do not have to comply, is not, as we all know, the world created and loved by God, it is not the people of the world to whom, on the contrary, we must always go to, especially the poor and the poor of the poor, to love them and serve them humbly ... No!”
He distinguished the service that is required of Christians in this regard, from the witness that is required in the face of the “world as it has become”.
“The world not to love is another world; it is the world as it became under the rule of Satan and sin. The world of ideologies that deny human nature and destroy the family ... structures from the UN, which impose a new global ethic, play a decisive role and have today become an overwhelming power,” he explained.
“In many Western countries, it is a crime today to refuse to submit to these horrible ideologies. This is what we call adaptation to the spirit of the times, conformism,” he said, before quoting from T.S Eliot.
“A great British believer and poet of the last century, Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote a few verses that say more than whole books: ‘In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away’,” Cardinal Sarah said.
“Fight any law against nature that would be imposed upon on you, oppose any law against life, against the family. Be of those who take the opposite direction! Dare to go against the grain!” Cardinal Sarah urged. “For us, Christians, the opposite direction is not a place, it is a Person, it is Jesus Christ, our Friend and our Redeemer. A task is especially entrusted to you: to save human love from the tragic drift into which it has fallen: love, which is no longer the gift of oneself, but only the possession of the other – a possession often violently tyrannical.”
In this context the cardinal paid tribute to the young gendarme, Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, who in March this year offered himself in exchange for a woman being held hostage by an Islamist terrorist, and was shot and stabbed to death by the hostage taker, Radouane Lakdim. (The Moroccan-born French national was on a watch-list but authorities had concluded he did not pose a threat.)
When God calls he is radical, Cardinal Sarah told the young people. “Dear friends, we are not called to be mediocre Christians!” he said, again in something of an echo of Pope Francis, before going on: "No, God calls us all to the total gift, to the martyrdom of the body or the heart!”
To prepare for this work, he said, “Return to the Source! Return to the monasteries!”
Before its current decline, the West was evangelised by the saints and the martyrs, he pointed out. “You, young people of today, will be the saints and the martyrs that the nations are waiting for in a New Evangelisation!” he told them.
And in this world of tumult “dare to spend a few days in a monastery”, he said. “Monasteries are oases of beauty and joy. You will experience that it is possible to put concretely God in the centre of his whole life. You will experience the only joy that will not pass,” he assured them.
And concluding with a tribute to the Virgin Mary and an expression of gratitude to Pope Francis, he said: “On this day when, thanks to the solicitude of the Holy Father Pope Francis, we celebrate Mary, Mother of the Church, let us ask this Most Holy Mother to have a heart like hers, a heart that refuses nothing to God, a heart burning with love for the glory of God.”