In reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book God or Nothing, there were times that I couldn’t help comparing his story to that of Pope St John Paul II.
Like John Paul, Sarah was orphaned an an early age and endured poverty and insecurity and fear. Like John Paul, Cardinal Sarah survived an oppressive, tyrannical Marxist regime. He rose from obscurity to attain great intellectual accomplishments, speaks out clearly and courageously and for the poor, the oppressed and the persecuted.
Like John Paul II, Robert Sarah is a man of tremendous courage, deep faith and fervent spirituality.
Robert Cardinal Sarah was born in 1945 in a remote village in the West African country of French Guinea. He lived with his mother and father in a round, one roomed hut, and received his primary education from the French Holy Ghost missionaries.
In October 1958, the French withdrew and the country declared independence with Marxist Sékou Touré as president. The radical and unpredictable Touré became an deliberate persecutor of the Catholic Church, and the young seminarian Sarah soon learned how to survive within a violent and oppressive regime.
Aged twelve, Sarah entered the Seminary of Bingerville in Ivory Coast, but at independence returned to the new country and entered the local seminary. In the summer of 1961, Touré’s government nationalized all private Catholic schools, including the seminary.
In 1964 Sarah was sent to France to study at the Grand Seminary at Nancy. He went on to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, earning a licentiate in theology before going on to Jerusalem, where he obtained a licentiate in Sacred Scriptures.
Fluent in French, Italian and English, Sarah was ordained a priest at the age of twenty four, and archbishop ten years later. He served in his home country under constant oppression and death threats from the Marxist dictatorship.
In 2001 Pope John Paul II brought him to Rome, appointing him secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In October 2010 he was appointed president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum to oversee global Catholic relief programs.
He also served on the Pontifical Council for the Laity and Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and in November 2014, Pope Francis appointed Sarah Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He also serves as a Member of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses.
Sarah has emerged as a kind of standard-bearer for Catholic orthodoxy of the sort favored by Pope Emeritus Benedict. Not afraid to wade into the liturgy wars, Sarah said in a recent article for the French magazine Famille Chrétienne that the Second Vatican Council did not require priests to celebrate Mass versus populum. (facing the people).
This way of celebrating Mass, he said, was “a possibility, but not an obligation”. The ministry of the Word is celebrated with readers and listeners facing one another, but “as soon as we reach the moment when one addresses God – from the offertory onward – it is essential that the priest and faithful look together towards the east. This corresponds exactly to what the Council Fathers wanted.”
Nor has Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments hesitated to confront the threat of Islam.
As Archbishop in West Africa, Sarah has faced down not only a maniacal Marxist dictator, but his own tiny country is 85 percent Muslim. Responding to Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi’s 2010 claim that Europe should become Muslim, Sarah said, “To speak of the European continent converting to Islam makes no sense, because it is the people alone who decide consciously to be Christian, Muslim or to follow other religions”.
Sarah has been even more outspoken in his resistance to the LGBT agenda.
In 2012, when United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a speech calling on African nations to repeal laws that place sanctions on homosexual conduct, Sarah called the speech “stupid”. He observed that Africa countries nod and go along with the agenda because acceptance is linked to aid money.
“It’s not possible to impose on the poor this kind of European mentality,” Sarah said, and he called on African bishops to resist such ideological imperialism.
In 2015, in a public address made at the Synod on the Family, he went further, putting together Western homosexual and abortion ideologies with Islamic fanaticism. He said they could be seen as “almost like two apocalyptic beasts” with demonic origins, drawing parallels to Nazism and Communism.”
Such language will not make Sarah the darling of either the beasts of ISIS, or the urbane secularists of the West. What gives Cardinal Robert Sarah the courage to speak out so forcefully against increasingly oppressive ideologies?
The answer goes back to the similarities with Pope John Paul. One of the root causes of John Paul’s undeniable courage is that he had nothing to lose, because he had lost everything already. The trials that both men went through—being brought up in poverty, being orphaned, surviving dictators, death threats and constant persecution—strengthened their resolve.
Most of all, the lives of both Sarah and John Paul II are deeply grounded in prayer, fasting, a simple love of Jesus and Mary, and a profound attachment to Jesus in the Eucharist. To put it simply, both are men of prayer and therefore men of power.