The cardinal from a remote African village has become a standard bearer for Catholic orthodoxy in a Church where many things now seem uncertain

It is often said that once a new pope has emerged on to the loggia of St Peter’s, the cardinals’ thoughts turn almost immediately to the question of his successor. Pope Francis, although about to turn 80 at the end of this year, does not seem ready to run out of steam. Despite having part of a lung missing, he seems undiminished by a daunting schedule, which in fact he seems to relish. This, along with his obvious pleasure in his role, means that it is difficult to take quite seriously his own speculation that his papacy will be a short one. Nonetheless, nobody should be surprised that there is already much speculation about the identity of his successor.

Among the names being talked about is that of one cardinal elevated to the Sacred College by Benedict XVI, who is increasingly admired by those who wish to consolidate the legacy of the Pope Emeritus.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, relatively little known before the election of Pope Francis, has shown himself since as a key player in Rome. His name – pronounced Sar-AH and not like the English given name – reveals the French linguistic and cultural heritage which this son of the West African savannah imbibed at an early age from the Holy Ghost missionaries. Cardinal Sarah, a second-generation Christian, is a man who combines an authentic claim to come from the ecclesiastical margins so beloved of Pope Francis with a deep grasp of the cultural and theological patrimony which the old continent disseminated along with its political and economic hegemony.

We get a fascinating insight into both of these strains in his personality through his book-length interview with French author Nicholas Diat, published last year in English translation as God or Nothing. After a biographical section, where the cardinal traces his career from the early years in a round, one-room brick hut in rural Guinea which was his family’s only possession to his present position as head of the Vatican’s liturgy dicastery, the book offers reflections on the theological issues which today affect the Church’s internal cohesion as well as the vitality of its missionary outreach.

Both sections are inspiring, revealing Cardinal Sarah as a man of profound and serene contemplative temperament along with dynamic capacities for action and an astonishing courage which tackles controversial questions head-on.

These qualities of talent for action and fearlessness were perhaps what made John Paul II choose him as the world’s youngest bishop in 1979, aged only 34, for the country’s capital city and metropolitan see of Conakry.

The Church in the former French colony had long been in conflict with the radical, Marxist regime of dictator Sékou Touré. Robert Sarah had grown up in the early days of the regime, shortly after independence, attending junior seminary in neighbouring Ivory Coast, then major seminary in Guinea, before completing his studies in France and Rome. As priest and bishop, his energetic fighting of the Church’s corner so irritated Touré that at the time of the strongman’s death in 1984, the prelate was found to be at the top of his target list for arrest and execution.

Archbishop Sarah guided the Church through the turbulent changes of regime which followed. He felt so worn down by the task that he began to take a retreat every two months during which he fasted from food and water from three days. “This life of solitude and prayer helped me to recharge and return to battle,” he says in God or Nothing. Nevertheless, he felt so embattled that in 1990 he drafted a resignation letter to the Pope. A mentor persuaded him not to send it.

In 2001 he was called to Rome as Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. In that role he had demonstrated sufficient firmness and competence to be entrusted by Benedict XVI with a delicate mission to the Church in Africa.

It would seem that the law of celibacy was being largely flouted among the clergy of the Central African Republic, and the complicity of the hierarchy in the situation was too flagrant to be ignored in Rome. In 2009 Archbishop Sarah led an investigation on the ground which claimed no lesser a head than that of the archbishop of the country’s capital, as well as the president of the country’s bishops’ conference, as well as numerous other highly placed clerics.

It may have been the combativeness of the Guinean prelate which led Benedict to choose him in 2010 for the post of president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, responsible for promoting and co-ordinating the Church’s charitable and humanitarian outreach. The following month he received the cardinalatial red hat. Cardinal Sarah reveals that the German pope told him he had made the appointment “because I know that of all people you have the experience of suffering and of the face of poverty. You will be most capable of expressing tactfully the Church’s compassion and closeness to those who are poorest.”

Tact and compassion, however, were not to be achieved at the expense of the outspoken witness of the new cardinal to the truth as he saw it. Within months of his nomination he became embroiled in a public row over Caritas International, the umbrella organisation which federates the activities of Catholic charities and development agencies worldwide. Cardinal Sarah was determined to strengthen the Catholic ethos of the organisation and apply the principles set out in
Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The decision not to renew the mandate of director Dr Lesley-Anne Knight was followed by the imposition of new statutes giving the Vatican greater oversight over Caritas.

The changes provoked Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the patron of Caritas, to echo the concerns of the many within it who were aggrieved in a manner which implied criticism of Cardinal Sarah as well as of the then Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. In those days Cardinal Rodríguez did not have the clout he now enjoys, and Cardinals Sarah and Bertone prevailed.

The change of pope spelt trouble for some high-ranking prelates, but not for the Guinean cardinal, whose credentials in a Church of and for the poor could not be called into doubt. When Cardinal Sarah was moved from Cor Unum it was to take a step upward, in a post concerned with one of the most disputed issues in the contemporary Church, that of liturgy.

Few, if any, would have predicted that someone so closely associated with the “Ratzingerian” agenda would be appointed to this post just as the fortunes of the
Ratzingerian party were manifestly ebbing in Rome. Indeed, it had been given out as virtually certain that the post of prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship would go to Archbishop Piero Marini, a known opponent of Benedict’s strategy for the liturgy. Archbishop Marini, a fluent Spanish speaker, is known to be close to Pope Francis. Why, then, was he thwarted of his rumoured ambition to take the reins of the Church’s liturgical life, in favour of a cardinal who has given voice to the very Ratzingerian (and un-Marinian) conviction that “one cannot encounter God … without trembling, without awe, without profound respect and holy fear”?

As a child in Guinea Robert Sarah saw the Vatican as an 'unreachable summit' (Photo: AP)

As a child in Guinea Robert Sarah saw the Vatican as an ‘unreachable summit’ (Photo: AP)

The answer is probably that Francis, who has on several occasions had to learn painfully that not even a pope can exercise absolute control over the curial machine, realised that it was not in his interest to provoke a backlash by an appointment so manifestly contrary to the orientations of his predecessor, in a domain that is not one of his priorities. He does not want to re-ignite liturgy wars. And so his charge to the new prefect was a masterful example of his technique of firing a salvo in apparently opposite directions: “I want you to continue to implement the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council … [and] to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.”

Paradoxically, Cardinal Sarah’s profile has become noticeably higher in a pontificate which might be thought uncongenial to his theological temperament. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the family synods of the last two years, where he became an outstanding spokesman both on the synod floor and in writing for those who are resisting attempts to open access to the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried – a change advocated forcefully by Cardinal Walter Kasper and others and to which Pope Francis has been thought favourable.

We will discover what the Pope’s decision on the matter is within a few weeks now, by all accounts, unless he chooses to avoid the difficulties of the decision by opting for studied ambiguity. But there was no ambiguity in Cardinal Sarah’s position. The African was adamant that no change was possible to the discipline since this would be tantamount to a repudiation of the Church’s constant doctrine. It may have been him that Cardinal Kasper had in mind when he made some rather ill-judged remarks about the admissibility of African opinions on the questions of sexual morality which so preoccupy the developed world today. Cardinal Sarah has been no less forthright in equating the agenda of liberalising theologians to cultural imperialism from an arrogant and decadent West.

Along with his position at the synod, Cardinal Sarah’s book has contributed to his assuming a position as something of a standard bearer for Catholic orthodoxy in a Church where many things now seem uncertain. And so it is that many are now talking about him as a possible papabile, whenever the next conclave may be.

How realistic is this? In God or Nothing, he talks of how as a boy the Vatican seemed to him an unapproachable pinnacle. The book reveals him to us as a truly humble man in love with the transcendent God whom he serves in action and approaches on his knees in contemplation. He surely does not nourish personal ambition to ascend that lonely pinnacle himself. But might the Church decide that she needs that combination of the fearless man of action and the awe-filled contemplative at the helm?

It is difficult to imagine that those who desire to reinvigorate the theological legacy of Benedict XVI could gain so significant a victory in a conclave held now. Every consistory held under Pope Francis – and one is expected later this year – dilutes their strength within the Sacred College.

Cardinal Sarah’s outspokenness on issues such as homosexuality, which has become a shibboleth for Western secular morality, would mean that electing him would be seen as a direct challenge to what appears to be the emerging world order. Not all cardinals are ready for this. When he compared Western liberal ideas on sex and gender to Nazi propaganda and Islamist terror, he infuriated liberals, who see him as largely responsible for torpedoing efforts to get the synod to adopt “a more pastoral tone” on homosexuality. But he also probably scared off some conservatives who prefer a less confrontational approach.

One thing we have learnt in the last three years is that there are fewer certainties in the Church than we thought. I certainly won’t be putting money on having a pope from the West African savannah, but only a foolhardy pundit would rule it out. Cardinal Sarah is only nine years younger than Francis, so his eligibility will probably diminish if Francis remains as Pope beyond a few more years. That said, the prospect of a short reign can be seen as an advantage in a fraught situation – this was certainly the case for Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005. Still, whoever emerges as pope from the next conclave, one thing I think we can be sure of is that the voice of Robert Sarah will be listened to in its deliberations.

Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese

This article first appeared in the March 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here