Book Review: The cry of a Cardinal’s soul
The cry of a Cardinal’s soul
The Day is Now Far Spent by Robert, Cardinal Sarah, Ignatius Press, 349 pp, £16.50
reviewed by Mark Vickers
Coming just three years after his magisterial tome arguing for a rediscovery of the power of silence, one speculates why the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship felt the need to speak out again, offering the Church another substantial volume. It is a question which the Cardinal anticipates, and answers. Christians are disorientated. ‘The Church is experiencing the dark night of the soul.’ Daily the Cardinal finds himself asked for help and advice. It requires courage to analyse and articulate the deep-seated causes of the current spiritual crisis. Courage is not something which Sarah lacks.
Like God or Nothing and The Power of Silence, this work is structured as a ‘conversation’ with the French journalist and author, Nicolas Diat. (Indeed, it is presented as the third panel of a triptych.) However, there is little of the freshness and interplay of personal dialogue which marked the more famous precedents of Pope Benedict’s interviews with Vittorio Messori and Peter Seewald. In this book Sarah gives very lengthy responses; there are protracted quotations, particularly from St John Paul II and Pope Benedict. The material is excellent, but one feels that an interview format has been imposed on a series of essays and commentaries. It might have read more easily if it had not.
Bishops’ complicit silence
There are no elephants in the room for Cardinal Sarah. Where he identifies a threat to the salvation of souls, the holiness of the Church and the survival of civilisation, he will fearlessly call it out.
Sarah begins with the Church, readily acknowledging that many wounds are self-inflicted. He acknowledges the shamefulness of clerical abuse. He acknowledges the presence of clericalism, and a preference for activism. He is particularly scathing of his brother bishops and their too-frequent complicit silence. Bishops must learn again to be catechists, ‘faithful teachers of divine truths.’ Failure to do so produces confusion, and will result in a day of reckoning. Bishops must accompany and provide spiritual paternity to their priests.
Neither partisanship nor doubt
Priests and people are castigated when they deny doctrine and morality, when relativism constitutes an intellectual betrayal of Christ. There is profound need to abandon ‘socio-political issues,’ to return to personal sanctification and the proclamation of the Gospel.
Sarah encourages personal conversion, fidelity and prayer. He urges his fellow Catholics to give way to neither partisanship nor doubt. Doubt, division and ambiguity are the work of the Devil. In these troubled times, he proposes the lives of saints and holy religious as role models for us all. Young people need heroes – hence the success of the World Youth Days instituted by St John Paul II.
Celibacy and ‘second class priests’
The Cardinal has reflected further on priestly celibacy with Pope Benedict in From the Depths of Our Hearts. But in The Day is Now Far Spent too, Sarah does not hesitate to address the issues raised by the recent Amazonian Synod. The priesthood, celibacy, the Cross and the truth ‘are closely connected realities in Jesus.’ Sarah says that he has too much respect for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon to offer them ‘second class’ priests. Instead, he invites each Latin American diocese to send a missionary priest to the area. He clearly recognises that there could be no possibility of restricting disastrous innovations to the Amazonian region.
Radical break with God
There follows a lengthy and desperately sad survey of the Western world, a world which has lost its way, its identity and its hope. The chapter headings indicate the problems: ‘Hatred of Man,’ ‘Hatred of Life,’ ‘The Errors of the West,’ ‘The Funeral March of Decadence,’ etc. It is a long catalogue of woes: commercialism, cynicism, hedonism, individualism and globalism. The West refuses to acknowledge the consequences of its radical break with God. Man has lost any sense of his divine origin and destiny. No wonder, he laments, the increase in youth suicide. As Europe threatens to implode, Sarah fears that Islam may have the last word. Europe must heed the warnings. One cannot reject all moral norms and survive. An opulent and compromised Church is failing in her duty to preach the truth in charity and protect civilisation.
The western elite
The Cardinal is not afraid to identify those whom he believes are capitulating to the threats he describes, and in doing so it is clear that the book was produced first for a French audience. He deprecates the violence used against the gilets jaunes protestors and denounces President Macron’s condemnation of large families. By contrast, he declares, there is something of a will to protect Christian civilisation in Russia and the Visegrad nations of Eastern Europe, who thus attract the scorn of the Western elite.
Overall, it is a bleak picture, an apocalyptical prophecy of civil war, social collapse and cultural suicide, in the face of which ‘Christians have abandoned their mission.’ Unsurprisingly, Diat asks the Cardinal whether there is any cause for hope.
Return to adoration and prayer
Part IV of the book is entitled ‘Rediscovering Hope,’ but tellingly it constitutes less than 15% of the content. There is no ‘programme’ to combat the dangers which beset us, because that would presuppose human solutions. The answer is a renewal of faith, the exercise of the Christian virtues. We must return to adoration and prayer. No, of course, Sarah is not without hope, but ‘hope is not smug optimism.’
The Cardinal begins by informing us that ‘this book is the cry of my soul.’ It is a disturbing read. But isn’t that the role of the prophet? Diat contends that Sarah is indeed a prophet because he is a man of deep prayer with many friends in heaven.
Fr. Mark Vickers is parish priest of Holy Ghost and St. Stephen, Balham, in south London. He has published a number of works on Church History.