Cardinals Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, left, and Robert Sarah attend a conference on the Latin Mass at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)
ROME - From a certain point of view, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea just had his wings clipped. Pope Francis on Saturday took away a considerable share of the control over translations of texts for use in Catholic worship from his Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the sacraments in the Vatican, and assigned it instead to local bishops’ conferences.
In part for that reason, Sarah’s first public appearance in Rome on Thursday, at a conference at the Dominican-sponsored Angelicum University on the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum, a document of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI widening permission for celebration of the older Latin Mass, had the feel of a news event.
Sarah, now 72, spoke for almost an hour, and here’s what seems to be the bottom line on where he stands: If anyone expects Sarah now to go gentle into that good night, muting his strenuous defense of liturgical tradition, they can forget it.
Sarah on Thursday came out firing on all cylinders, insisting that Catholic worship is not the place for “creativity and adaptation” because “it has already been adapted,” making it the place where “past, present and future meet in an instant.” He plugged the ad orientem posture at Mass, and issued both a stirring defense of young adepts of the Latin Mass and a strong call to brother bishops to “make space” for them.
Yet equally, if anyone expected Sarah to go to war against his boss, subtly or not-so-subtly suggesting Francis is the problem - as some in the crowd gathered on Thursday have publicly argued he is - they can forget that too.
At several points during his address, Sarah explicitly described Summorum Pontificum as something Benedict initiated and that “Pope Francis has continued.” Never referring to the new motu proprio on translation, Sarah certainly didn’t come anywhere close to criticizing it.
In other words, the take-away seemed to be that Sarah plans to remain precisely what he’s been up to this point - a hero in some ways to the more traditionalist wing of the Church, which gave him loud and sustained applause on Thursday, but not the leader of the in-house opposition.
(As a footnote, one figure some have cast in that role, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the four cardinals who submitted a list of questions, or dubia, to Francis about his document Amoris Laetitia, was in the front row at Thursday’s event.)
Sarah began by praising Summorum Pontificum as a “sign of reconciliation in the Church” from Benedict, and said it has brought “much fruit.” He reminded everyone that Benedict had explicitly affirmed it was “never abrogated.”
He argued that a more reverent and sober form of liturgy that places the accent on the “primacy of God” has never been more important than now, facing a world marked by “an ever more aggressive secularism, consumerism, a terrorism without God, and a culture of death that puts at risk our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”
Sarah suggested that if the Church today finds itself not always sufficiently “zealous” about its mission, liturgy overly shaped by modern tastes and fashions could be one of the causes. He also stated that “much remains to be accomplished for a complete and correct application” of the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on sacred liturgy.
As he often does, Sarah offered a strong plug for celebrating the Mass ad orientem, meaning with both the priest and the people facing East towards the altar, and ultimately, towards God. He called it a gesture that was “almost universally presumed in the antique forms of the Roman rite, rendered freely accessible by Benedict XVI for those who desire to use it.”
However, Sarah said, “this beautiful antique practice, so eloquent about the primacy of the all-powerful God, isn’t restricted just to the antique rite.
“It’s permitted and encouraged, and, I would insist, pastorally advantageous, in the more modern form of the Roman rite.”
On the importance of small things, such as the vessels used during the Catholic Mass, Sarah cited the example of two American seminarians who once brought him the chalice he was to use before Mass and asked him to bless it before they placed it near the altar, calling that a “very moving” touch.
Taking up the theme of his recent book, Sarah delivered a strong plea for greater silence in worship, calling it “the first act of sacred service.”
Sarah also underlined what he described as the “many young people discovering this liturgical form, who feel attracted by it and find it a form particularly appropriate for them.
“They encounter the mystery of the Holy Eucharist,” Sarah said, “which is more and more a key virtue for them in the modern world.”
Sarah conceded that “many in my generation struggle to understand this,” but insisted that “I can give personal testimony to the sincerity and dedication of this younger generation of priests and laity, and then many good vocations to the priest and consecrated life born in communities using the antique rite.”
If anyone doubts that, Sarah urged them to “visit these communities, get to know them, especially the young who are part of them.
“Open your hearts and minds to these young brothers and sisters, and look at the good they do,” he said. “They’re not nostalgic or oppressed by the ecclesiastical battles of recent decades, they’re full of joy to live life with Christ amid the challenges of the modern world.”
Sarah issued a direct appeal to his brother bishops to be open to people attached to the older Mass and more traditional customs and observances.
“These communities need paternal care,” he said, “and we must not allow personal preferences or misunderstandings that keep the faithful away who adhere to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. We bishops and priests are called to be instruments of reconciliation and communion in the Church for all the Christian faithful, and I humbly ask you, in the one faith we have in common and in accord with the words of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, to generously open your hearts to allow in everything the faith offers, and to create space for it.”
Statistically, he conceded, these people may remain “a small part of the life of the Church,” but that, he said, “doesn’t make them inferior or second-class.”
Sarah took up the controversial expression “reform of the reform,” sometimes used to describe Benedict’s decision to normalize access to the older Latin Mass and associated by critics with an effort to roll back the reforms launched by Vatican II.
Sarah said he prefers to talk about a “positive enrichment” of both forms through wider contact between the two, suggesting greater space for silence is something the new Mass could learn from the old - while adding that he was merely speaking of possibilities, and that liturgical changes should not be “forced without study and adequate preparation and formation.”
The Guinean cardinal also referred to an interview he gave in July, speculating about a possible future reconciliation” between the two forms. Some took it to mean his goal is to impose one form on everyone, he said, but insisted that’s “absolutely foreign to my intentions.”
Finally, Sarah issued a challenge to his audience, asking that they stop calling themselves “traditionalists,” and stop allowing others to refer to them that way.
“You’re not enclosed in a box, or in a library or museum of curiosities,” he said. “You’re not ‘traditionalists.’ You’re Catholics of the Roman rite, like me, like the Holy Father, not second-class citizens in the Catholic Church because of your cult and spiritual practices.”
Those practices, he pointed out, were also those of “innumerable saints.”
He told the group that it should not become “enclosed or withdrawn into a ghetto, which an attitude of defensiveness dominates, and suffocates your witness to the world of today to which you are sent.
“Ten years later,” he said, referring to the Summorum Pontificum anniversary, “If we haven’t broken the chains of the traditionalist ghetto yet, do it today!”
Sarah’s address was part of a conference pilgrimage organized by a group called Cœtus Internationalis Summorum Pontificum, devoted to studying and fostering Benedict XVI’s 2007 document.
On Thursday morning, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke to the group, saying that the “ancient liturgy will continue to rejuvenate the Church.”
Müller also did not touch on the recent motu proprio on liturgical translation, but he did talk about decisions on the liturgy being so important that “we can’t make a mistake,” and noted that even in the formation of the Biblical canon by the early Church, one key test was the use of texts in worship in the most important local churches - including, he said, “the church of Rome.”