ROME — The prodigal son left home in order to say, “I’m independent, I’m autonomous from my father,” and his father wants to forgive him. But if he doesn’t return home, he can’t be forgiven. And returning home means leaving sin behind.
This was just one thought shared by Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, who spoke exclusively to Aleteia at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last week.
Appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014, he was one of the first priests to be ordained in the West African nation of Guinea, and attributes his own faith to the generosity of the Spiritan missionaries, who came to his village in 1912.
Cardinal Sarah was one of the keynote speakers at last week’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. He delivered a well received address entitled: The Light of the Family in a Dark World.
In this interview, he discusses his new book God or Nothing, the scope of papal authority, and why authentic mercy depends on a “break” from evil, and repentance of sin.
Your Eminence, your new book is entitled ‘God or Nothing’. Why did you choose this title, and what is the heart of the message of your book?
As you know, from the time just before the Second Vatican Council until now, God has been disappearing more and more; [for many] he no longer exists. No one is interested in Him, especially in the West. Already at the Council, they wanted to help the world to rediscover God.
The main idea of my book is how do we give God the first place in our thoughts, in our daily actions, and in our being, so that God truly returns to being our Father.
The economy is important, politics are important, many things are important, but if we lose God we are like a tree without roots: it dies. And therefore, the heart of the book is to put God first in my mind, in my daily actions, and in my being. In this way, man will not lose his roots.
Already in the Western culture, they say: “We don’t have Christian roots.” This is illogical. The culture, the architecture, the art: It’s all Christian. To deny what is clearly obvious is suicide.
I came to know God through the missionaries. Many of them died after one year on mission, or two, or three. They never survived longer than three years. They died of malaria, or some other illness. They sacrificed so much to proclaim God. And so I thought: If so many of them died, and if still today there are so many martyrs, it means that God is important in life.
Therefore, the heart of my book is this: How do we find God in what we are, in what we do, and in what we think?
But I also touch upon many issues and problems in the world today: issues and problems in the Church, issues in marriage, in the priesthood. All current issues that affect the life of the Church: mission, the Pope …
The Pope? In what sense?
I examine the role of the Pope. There is a chapter in which I talk about Pope Pius XII until Francis. The Pope’s role is to be the one to whom the Lord has entrusted the keys and the Church. “You are rock, Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
Therefore, the Pope must be “Christ on earth” and protect the faith of Christians. He must help to preserve the faith, to safeguard and preserve what the Church has always lived from the beginning until now. He is the rock. If the rock isn’t solid, it can be difficult for Christians because they don’t have any protection. Until now, all of the popes have sought to secure and safeguard the faith of Christians.
Pope Francis often speaks about the economy, the environment, immigration, etc. How should the faithful rightly understand a pope’s statements on these matters?
If the Pope speaks about the economy or politics, it is not his field of expertise. He can offer his vision or opinion, but it’s not dogma. He can err. But what he says about Christ, about the Sacraments, about the faith must be considered as sure.
If he speaks about the environment, the climate, the economy, immigrants, etc., he is working from information that may be correct, or mistaken, but [in these cases] he is speaking as Obama speaks, or another president. It doesn’t mean that what he says on the economy is dogma, something we need to follow. It’s an opinion.
But, if what he says is illustrated and illumined by the Gospel, then we ought to regard it seriously. “God wills this; this is what the Bible says”. Or “God wills that; this is what the Gospel says”. Thus politics is illumined, the economy is illumined by the Gospel. That, too, has some surety because it is not his own thought. It is the thinking of the Bible, the mind of God.
For me, it’s clear that the Pope cannot not speak about these issues. But when he does, he is saying what any Head of State can say without it being the Word of God. We need to distinguish.
Here at the World Meeting of Families, you delivered a keynote address entitled ‘The Light of the Family in a Dark World’. You spoke about the threats the family faces, from both outside and within the Church. Regarding the latter, you said: “Even members of the Church can be tempted to soften Christ’s teaching on marriage and the family, and to curious and varying degrees the idea that would consist in placing the Magisterium in a pretty box and separating it from pastoral practice, which could involve, according to circumstances, fashions and impulses is a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology.” Can you clarify what you mean?
For example, some bishops say that — regarding marriage — when two people have separated, we need to see if we can give them Holy Communion even if, for example, they have entered into a second marriage. This isn’t possible, because God has said there can be only one marriage. If they are separated, they can’t enter into another marriage. If they do so, they cannot receive Communion.
But now, some are saying, that this may be done in order “to care for them pastorally, to heal them …,” but we can’t heal someone without truly curing him, without reconciling him with God.
If someone has already entered into a second marriage, it’s difficult to cure him. We cannot abandon him; certainly we can accompany him, saying: you should continue to pray and go to Mass; you must form your children in the Christian faith; you can participate in parish activities and charitable service. But you can’t receive Communion.
That is why I say we mustn’t separate doctrine from pastoral practice, thereby claiming to bring healing, because one can’t bring healing in this way.
Some prelates argue that allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion would be an act of mercy. Why in your view would allowing those who are divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion not be an act of mercy?
Because mercy requires repentance. If I’ve done something wrong, I repent. If I did something wrong, in order to repent I have to break with the evil I’ve done. This is mercy.
Take the prodigal son, for example. He left home in order to say, “I’m independent, I’m autonomous from my father”. The father wants to forgive him, but if the prodigal son doesn’t return home, he can’t be forgiven. To be forgiven, he has to renounce his life and return home. This is mercy. If he remains far from home, he can’t receive mercy. Therefore, in order to receive mercy, one has to break with sin.
And why can’t the father go out and live with the son where he is?
Because the house is here; not somewhere out there. The son has to return home. If he returns home, he has left his independence, his sin. In the Gospel, the son returns home, saying: “I am your son, I am not worthy, but take me as a servant.” This is repentance. If there’s no repentance, there’s no mercy.
The same is true when Jesus went to the house of Zaccheus. He was a tax collector for the Romans. Jesus goes to his house, because he was there and wanted to see Jesus, and he humbled himself, climbing a tree. Jesus sees him. He sees that Zaccheus is looking for something, not only money. And Jesus says to him: “Come down, for today I want to come and stay in your home”.
The people say: “What? he’s going to stay in the house of a sinner,” but Zaccheus responds: “Yes, I stole lots of money, but today what I stole I’ll give back three and fourfold.” He repented. He doesn’t steal anymore, and that’s not all: he gave back what he’d stolen. This is mercy. The same is true for the Samaritan.
Jesus entered into Zaccheus’ home because he knew he had repented, and he thereby confirmed his repentance. What Zaccheus did wasn’t insignificant. Only children climb trees; he humbled himself in climbing the tree.
If we wish to analyze this more deeply, he climbed the tree of the Cross; that is, the tree that destroys sin.
Zaccheus ascended the tree of the Cross?
Yes, he ascended the Cross, because he was seeking a Savior. He didn’t need to climb the tree to see Jesus. It’s said he was short in stature, well and good. But symbolically, this point is very significant. He climbed the tree of salvation, and Jesus went to his house in order to confirm this.
Zaccheus repented. Then Jesus entered into his home. May we also say then, in a similar way, that before receiving Holy Communion, we have to repent, and then the Lord enters into us?
Yes. If we don’t leave behind our sin, how can we receive Communion? God and sin cannot abide together. It’s not harsh. It’s for the sake of bringing true healing. We need to truly help people. If someone is wounded, it’s not enough to put a salve on his hand. He needs to be cured.
And if someone does receive Holy Communion in a state of grave sin?
St. Paul says that he eats unto his own condemnation. If he does so knowingly, and does it of his own will, he eats unto his own condemnation.
We are all sinners, but we go to Confession and we don’t want to remain in sin. A marriage is something firmly established. If I have entered into a second marriage, and I’m there for life, it’s a firmly established sin. I can’t then claim to be able to receive Holy Communion.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.