The Church and the world are certainly in crisis, according to one of the Vatican’s high-ranking cardinals, but there is also plenty of reason for hope, because the Lord can calm even winds and storms.
In a French-language series of essays being released in book form as Le soir approche et déjà le jour baisse, (Evening Approaches and the Day Is Now Far Spent), Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, looks at the crises of the contemporary world and the Church.
Co-written with the essayist Nicolas Diat, the book draws on the exhortation that the disciples walking to Emmaus tell Jesus: Stay with us Lord, for evening approaches …
Cardinal Sarah spoke with Aleteia about the crises and why the key to rescuing the situation is casting out fear.
Aleteia : What can we say to those who might think your book is pessimistic or even alarmist?
Cardinal Robert Sarah: I came to my conclusions with great caution and a great desire for precision. It seems to me, therefore, that it is not far from the truth. Of course, the picture may seem bleak, but Pope Benedict XVI himself said, just before his election to the See of Peter, that the West is going through a crisis that has never before been seen in history.
The reality is there: We cannot say that there is not a crisis of faith while the churches are emptying. I do not think that in the past we have witnessed accusations such as those currently directed against cardinals, bishops, priests, who are sometimes even being sentenced to prison terms… In society, I do not know of another civilization that has legalized abortion, euthanasia, broken up the family and broken up marriage to such an extent. And these are essential aspects of human life.
We are in a difficult situation and the crisis is deep and serious, but I have also devoted the last part of the book to a long reflection on hope because each crisis has a new dimension within it, the beginning of a rebirth.
What do you recommend in order to keep on going?
Cardinal Sarah: What is tragic is the division within the Church. A division that manifests itself mainly on doctrinal, moral, and disciplinary levels. Everyone now says and thinks what they want. How could we not be concerned if it seems that the Church no longer has doctrine or clear moral teaching?
In such a situation, let us try to follow the example of the Apostles. One day when they were crossing Lake Tiberias, a strong gust took them by surprise. The waves engulfed the boat, so that it started filling with water. Jesus was at the stern sleeping on a pillow. What was the attitude of the Apostles about this danger? They held on to the boat firmly so that it wouldn’t capsize. They knew their job. So they clung to the helm to keep the boat upright despite the strong winds. But while they were rowing with all their energy and skill, they also shouted with all their strength: “Master, don’t you care that we were perishing?”
Today too, we must hold on to the boat firmly, and pray. In other words, it is our responsibility to stand firmly by the Doctrine, the teaching of the Church, and to pray. We do not pray enough. Priests have too many activities. By believing that we can change the Church through our own efforts, and through simple structural reforms, we become activists. Rather, we need the grace that is obtained only through fervent and constant prayer.
What would you like to say to those who are not on the same page, and who want to change doctrine?
Cardinal Sarah: The Church does not belong to the pseudo-reformers. I cannot change what I have not built myself and which, therefore, does not belong to me. No one can change the Church of Jesus. Those who want to change it need a mandate from Jesus.
Ordain women priests, for example? This question is already resolved: John Paul II affirmed that the Church did not have the power to ordain women. His declaration used a definitive formulation. “This door is closed.” Francis has confirmed this by saying: “The Church has spoken and has said no.”
Now, give women more responsibility in the Church? I’d be happy to. I am sure that women have an important place and role in the Church and in society. But they are not valued any better by entrusting them with duties and a mission that God, in his infinite Wisdom, reserves for men. From the Old Testament, God chose Aaron and his sons to exercise His priesthood.
It is surprising to insist on a possible ordination of women, because it seems to me, after more than 2,000 years of Christianity, that this shows a lack of faith. The ordination of women will never happen in the Catholic Church even if there were no priests left in the world. Not out of contempt for women, but because it is not in God’s will and plan.
Now that the exhortation Christus vivit has been released by Pope Francis to the youth, what message do you think they need to be given to face this crisis?
Cardinal Sarah: Do not be disrupted by what is written about cardinals, bishops, and priests, but look at the Gospel and fix your eyes on Christ. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life and He gives the guarantee that we are not mistaken. Then, love the Church and serve Her, no matter what is said about Her. She is your mother, pure and immaculate, wrinkle-free and spotless. The marks we see on Her face are actually ours! Her children are in crisis, but the Church is not. Finally, convert, first yourself, then be missionaries. Finally, try to lead your friends to Christ.
How can we convert without resorting to proselytism as denounced just recently by Pope Francis during his trip to Morocco?
Cardinal Sarah: The Church is not a proselyte, but She has a mandate from Jesus: “All power has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe what I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you until the end of time.” The Church cannot avoid this urgent task.
“Woe to me,” said Saint Paul, “if I do not evangelize.” This is what missionaries did in Africa, and on other continents. In their first contact with people, they immediately presented the Gospel and its demands, without ever forcing anyone. I do not know of any missionary who has forced a people to become Christian. But evangelizing is a duty. Whether it is Muslims, Buddhists or animists, we must evangelize everyone by proclaiming Jesus Christ, because he is the only way to salvation, so it is not proselytism, because we do not force pagans or Muslims with weapons, but offer them the way to salvation. Our religion is based on love and banishes violence.
Can evangelization be intensified in France, which is confronting a robust Islam?
Cardinal Sarah: France has in any case renounced its Christian roots; the Gospel is no longer its reference. God no longer has a place in its society. The only place where it is tolerated is the private domain, and even then it is confined to house arrest. Man has taken the place of God. It enacts laws in total opposition to the laws of God and those of nature. You believe that men, or women, can marry between themselves… While everyone is fighting for the abolition of the death penalty, the murder of unborn children is legal, as is divorce. While we are fighting genital mutilation everywhere, we are legalizing the mutilation of people who want to change their sex. What a diabolical contradiction.
The evangelization of the West will be more and more difficult. But it must be undertaken with burning zeal, without fear or shame. Evangelization is not a confrontation. Rather, it is God who comes to offer his Love to every man and woman, whatever his race, religion or continent. God has an immense respect for our freedom because He is Love, and Love is powerless and incapable of forcing the conscience and the heart. But all men have a right to the Gospel.
There are countless scandals around the world involving bishops. Are we in the middle of a bishops’ crisis?
Cardinal Sarah: There is certainly a crisis of identity, responsibility and a crisis of faith. But the crisis is actually a serious crisis of the priesthood, of the priest’s relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, all of you, as baptized people, are participating in this crisis if you do not witness to your Christian faith.
In the letter to Diognetus we read the following testimony: “Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not theirwives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again…They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors.”
A Christian is therefore totally immersed in the world but categorically opposes everything that contradicts God and the Good of man, such as abortion and unnatural unions. Respect for life, for the family, for the human person is not an issue that concerns only Christians but one that is fundamentally human.
Bishops have a great responsibility in the crisis of the Church because if the shepherd abandons the flock, the wolf takes it over. Then the shepherd will have to answer to God, the Pastor of the Pastors.
If the Church sanctifies Herself at Her core, through families, we have the feeling, from what you’ve written, that the crisis has come from above. Is the time of saintly bishops over?
Cardinal Sarah: The Church is a hierarchical reality. She is organized just like a human body with its different members: the apostles, their successors, bishops, priests and the Christian faithful. All, however, must make the Church live and radiate holiness.
In history, we have had great and holy bishops (Peter, Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, Hilaire of Poitiers, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose). They are models of faith, courage and holiness. It is true that the current crisis is in the upper echelons. If we are no longer able to teach doctrine, morality, or set an example and be models, then the crisis is very serious. Who will defend the sheep if, leaving them to their fate, the pastors become afraid and flee from the wolves?
Fear is the great weakness of the Church today. Everyone is, of course, terrorized because the Church is accused of all evils. But when someone is caught up in fear, they are no longer in control of themselves. This is why the Church no longer dares to stand out and go against the grain to show the world the way.
Some bishops fear criticism because they are self-centred and come to be too cautious, to no longer express anything clearly so as not to encounter opposition or martyrdom. Now, they must find God, focus on Him and trust in the power of His grace. Indeed, when we are truly with Him, we are afraid of nothing.
Benedict XVI spoke of the filth in the Church. Is contact with sin not a sine qua non for the Church to accomplish her mission?
Cardinal Sarah: The situation in which we live is indeed a sign of providence to remind us that if the Church chooses to reduce herself to the human, to flee into the world, she will rot. If she only deals with social issues, and fails to mention the divine, she is wasting her time. If, on the contrary, she descends into the depths of sin by carrying Christ with her, then she will purify and deify humanity.
[Translation from the French original by Aleteia]