In a new book, Cardinal Robert Sarah calls priests to spiritual renewal, saying that it will not come through structural changes, but through rediscovering the priest’s mission and identity as the presence of Christ in the world.
“Christ never created structures. Of course, I’m not saying they aren’t necessary. Organization is useful in society, but it is not first,” Sarah said in a Nov. 16 interview with the Catholic French weekly Famille Chrétienne.
“What is first is the very first word of Christ in the Gospel of Mark: ‘Convert and believe in the Gospel.’”
The Vatican’s former liturgy chief published “Pour l’éternité: Méditations sur la figure du prêtre” (“For Eternity: Meditations on the Figure of the Priest”) in Europe on Nov. 17.
The book, currently available only in French, includes passages from saints and the Church Fathers to encourage meditation on the renewal of the priesthood, which, according to the cardinal, is a necessary step on the way to resolving the crisis in the Catholic Church.
“If priests, if society look to God, then I think things will change,” he told Famille Chrétienne. “If hearts are not changed by the Gospel, politics will not change, the economy will not change, human relationships will not change. It is Christ who is our peace, who will create more fraternal human relations, of collaboration, of cooperation.”
Structures “are also often a danger, because we take refuge behind them,“ he said. “God will not ask accounts of an episcopal conference, of a synod … It is us, bishops, that he will hold accountable: how did you manage your diocese, how did you love your priests, how did you accompany them spiritually?”
Cardinal Sarah ended a more than six-year term as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in February.
The 76-year-old from Guinea wrote a book on the priesthood, celibacy, and the crisis of the Catholic Church, “From the Depths of Our Hearts,” in 2020. The book attracted controversy centered on whether it was co-authored by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Sarah said that in his new book he wanted to express his affection and encouragement both to priests who are struggling and those who feel strong in their vocation.
“It is about encouraging them not to lose God, to have the courage to follow Christ as they accepted from the beginning, on the day of their ordination,” he explained. “Because the crisis that we are going through today in the Church depends essentially on the priestly crisis.”
The cardinal also commented on the scandal of abuse in the priesthood, saying that the Church “must not be afraid of the truth.”
“We must feel deeply hurt, suffer from it as Christ suffered when Judas betrayed him, when Peter denied him,” he said, adding that the Church and her priests are supposed to be models, and even one case of abuse is too many.
“The discovery of so many sins committed gives us a better understanding of the apparent sterility of our local churches. How could we bear fruit when such cancer was gnawing at us from within? We must rediscover the meaning of penance and contrition,” he said, urging adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament “in reparation for the profanations committed against his image in the souls of children.”
Cardinal Sarah added that Catholics should not let themselves be overcome by discouragement, however, because the overwhelming majority of priests are faithful, which is a cause for thanksgiving.
“Their daily and hidden fidelity makes no noise, but it silently carries deep seeds of renewal,” he said.
“It is up to us to see how the guilty priests can be punished and, if possible, cared for, healed, accompanied, so that such acts do not happen again,” the cardinal continued. “Above all, it is up to us not to let these horrors turn souls away from Christ and lock up so many innocent victims in suffering.”
Cardinal Sarah’s book is dedicated to seminarians, and he said he wanted to encourage them too, because they are studying to become priests at a difficult time.
He said that he wanted to tell them that if Christ has called them to the Catholic priesthood, he will also give them the means to really follow him.
“Try to take this call seriously. The Lord who calls you is not going to leave you alone. He will support you with his grace, but you yourself must be a fully realized man, a true, honest, upright man who has all the human qualities,” he said.
Families play an important role in supporting priests, he noted, encouraging people to invite priests into their homes to pray and converse.
A strong prayer life is vital for every priest, he said, citing the example of the saints such as St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars.
When his interviewer pointed out that “the France of the Curé of Ars is not the France of the 21st century,” Cardinal Sarah responded: “Indeed, but man is the same. Man does not change. He has the same ambitions, he has the same flaws, the same vices from Adam until today.”
“It is only the circumstances that we have created that can confuse us, but man does not change,” he insisted, adding that “the Frenchman of the Curé d’Ars is the Frenchman of today, with the difference that the Frenchman of today has a cell phone … But in his ambitions, in his vices, and his faults, he is the same. We still need holy priests identified with Christ.”
The cardinal also commented on the way that France and other Western countries have closed themselves off to God.
“If France, if the West, thanks to the ministry of priests, rediscover that God has come among us, that he loves us, that he wants our salvation, that he wants us to discover the truth and that this truth will help us will set free, then the mission will be possible,” he said.
“But there is no need to despair,” he continued. “That is why priests must rediscover their mission, priests must rediscover their identity. They are the presence of Christ in the midst of this world. If they conduct themselves well, if they are the presence of Christ, then France and the West can rediscover him little by little.”