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Cardinal Robert Sarah

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By Joan Lamar (Mar 11, 2016)
Holiness embodied in another person is inspiring. But when holiness is paired with wisdom, you have the makings of an exceptional teacher. And one of the great teachers in the Church today is Robert Cardinal Sarah.

In the recent book on Sarah, the autobiographical interview God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015), the Guinean Cardinal speaks on central topics such as God, humanity, the Church, priesthood, prayer, family, and society. What emerges is a man of deep prayer, a man of God.

Most of his words resonated with me, but here I will talk about what he had to say on a few things: prayer, priesthood, and family.

Put the Rocks in First
Sarah illustrates the importance of prayer by telling a story in which a professor fills a bucket with large rocks, the size of tennis balls. When the professor couldn't fit any more rocks in the bucket, he asks his students if the bucket was full. Of course, they all answer yes. Then he pours gravel into the bucket and it fits into the spaces between the rocks. He asks again, is it full? This time they aren't so sure. He proceeds to pour sand into the bucket, which fills the spaces that the gravel didn't fill. And finally, he pours water in the bucket to fill the spaces that the rocks, the gravel, and the sand could not fill.

The point of the story is that it's important to put the rocks in first. If we put the water in first, the rocks and the sand and the gravel won't fit. If we don't remember to put those rocks in our lives first, they get overlooked. And this is where prayer fits in. "Prayer truly needs to be the big rock that has to fill the pot of our life," he counsels.

He also talks about the nature of prayer — that "prayer is time where we do nothing else but be with God and we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us." This is why silence is so important when we pray, and this is why it is important to listen, he says. "Interior silence allows us to hear the prayer of the Holy Spirit, which becomes our own prayer."

Sarah likens prayer to the fostering of a friendship — in this case, with God. And, as with any relationship, it takes time. We need to "show up" and just be with God just as we would be present with any of our friends. He says that prayer asks us to be like a child — we have to often wait for God to respond to us but we must give ourselves over to God like a child and give him "a bit of freedom within us." The problem today is that we don't give God the freedom to live and act in us, he adds. Instead, "we occupy all the ground of our interior landscape, all day long and endlessly."

Sarah laments the busyness of our culture where we have no time for family or for ourselves. Never mind time for God. But prayer is the greatest need of the contemporary world, he says, and it is the means through which we can transform the world. "In an age that no longer prays, time is, so to speak, abolished, and life turns into a rat race."

A Bridge to God
Cardinal Sarah speaks movingly about the roots of his own priestly vocation. He uses similar language that St. John Paul II did in describing the source of his vocation, which was "found in the Cenacle in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem." Every day when he celebrates the Eucharist, Sarah said he "hears the words Jesus spoke to his Apostles in his heart and he believes that on that night Jesus was thinking of him too and had already placed his hand on my head."

He asserts that the future of the priesthood can be found in the example of the saints and points to two saints in particular and how they lived out their priesthood: St. John Paul II and St. John Vianney. He believes that John Paul II made the Cross central to his priesthood and that all priests are bound up forever with the mystery of the Crucifixion. "The priest is a man who is crucified with Christ; he celebrates Mass not only to perpetuate, commemorate, and make present the Crucifixion; but also to experience his own crucifixion; then the priest is Christ himself."

The Eucharist was also central to John Paul II's priesthood. As priests, we become like Christ only through an intense life of prayer, adoration, and silent contemplation, Sarah explains, and "as priests, we must become this white Host, allow ourselves to be transubstantiated, and resemble Christ himself in every feature."

Cardinal Sarah also points to the Curé of Ars as an example for the future priesthood. Saint John Vianney lived out his priestly ministry "deep in prayer and lost in God," he said. "He was like a bridge that leads men to the Lord." And all priests are called to be that bridge to God for others.

Finally, Cardinal Sarah teaches that the priesthood is closely linked to the Virgin Mary. In fact, "John Paul II taught that the priesthood is inconceivable without a filial bond to Mary." Mary supports priests in their fidelity to their commitments, he attests. "Thanks to the Blessed Virgin, I am convinced that the priesthood will never disappear."

Sarah conveys the qualities necessary in a priest by recounting a story about St. Gregory the Great. Gregory was pope in the 6th century and, at that time, there were many priests, but Gregory felt that just because a priest accepted the office of priesthood, they may not be fulfilling the demands of their priestly office. Saint Gregory felt that if priests aren't preaching, then the souls entrusted to them are not hearing the Word of God. And if people are not hearing the Word of God, they fall into sin. Many priests in Gregory's day were caught up in the world, Cardinal Sarah said, so didn't fulfill the demands of their call.

To avoid those pitfalls today, first and foremost we need priests who are men of the interior life — "God's watchmen," Cardinal Sarah maintains. What matters most, he counsels, is the quality of the priest's heart, the strength of his faith, and his interior life. In short, we shouldn't fear the shortage of priests, Sarah adds, rather, "hope that there will be good, holy priests, men of God and men of prayer."

Rediscovering Family
Finally, Cardinal Sarah had some things to say about the family. He starts by giving us an African saying. "African philosophy declares: 'Man is nothing without woman, woman is nothing without man, and the two are nothing without a third element, which is the child.'" So, the African view of man is fundamentally Trinitarian, he explains, and that in each of us, there is something of the divine.

Sarah explains that the African family is built around a common, or shared, life and that for most Africans, family comes first. Money has a secondary place. But in western culture, we often see these things reversed. In light of this, Sarah believes that Europe and the West have to rediscover the family, and that "Africa may be able to point the way."

One of the areas in which he sees pronounced differences in African culture from western culture is our treatment of the elderly. In Africa, there is great respect for the elderly, but Africans are "shocked" to see a different situation in the West. "This tendency to hide old age and marginalize it is the sign of a worrisome selfishness, heartlessness, or more accurately, hard-heartedness," he suggests. Sarah paints a grim picture remarking that in western culture, old people have the physical care they need, but lack the closeness and human affection of their relatives who are too busy with the professional obligations, recreation, and their vacations.

But the family is central to the flourishing of our society. And it is in the family where the faith is transmitted, Sarah maintains. It is in the family, "the little Church," where we begin to know and encounter God. "Familial harmony can be the reflection of the harmony of heaven."

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