Read Cardinal Sarah Accurately

by Felix Neumann

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congsarahregation for Divine Worship, is otherwise well-known for pithy words, and for raising his voice loudly – and now his new book is titled nothing other than “The Strength of Silence.” Of course he does not fail to provide powerful imagery, the devil has his prominent place, and his view of the world is pessimistic. For the cardinal from Guinea, the world is hectic, dominated by technology, alienated from God. Resistance against this is the call of the hour. And for Sarah it is clear: what the church needs is “not an administrative reform, the next pastoral program, or a change in structures.”

But it is worth it to read accurately what drives him, and not let oneself be scared away by ecclesio-political geography that divides everything into “right” and “left.” Sarah critiques a liturgy that is too wordy, too explanatory, too rational, and yet is too sensitive. “We risk reducing the holy mystery to good feelings,” he says in an interview with the French traditionalist monthly magazine La Nef.

One need not share Sarah’s enthusiasm for eastward liturgical orientation [ad orientem] to find this critique plausible: Worship services in which every step is explained because one does not trust the worshiping community to celebrate actively and responsibly. Worship services that trust the liturgy so little that symbolic rituals are invented. Worship services that trust Scripture so little that touchy-feely children’s books, from “The Little Prince” to “Rainbow Fish,” are lifted up to be readings.

With the noblest intentions, all this is allowed into the liturgy, for liturgies should be comprehensible, approachable, connected to daily life. But the danger in this is that what is intended to be comprehensible, approachable, and “nice” is in fact just banal and superficial. The danger is real that the worshiping congregation focusses on itself and a pleasing aesthetic of bourgeois mediocrity – and thereby loses a certain missionary strength and spiritual depth. The successful – in the sense of “with infectious missionary spirit” – liturgical movements of recent times, from Taizé to Nightfever, concentrate on silence, and a liturgy that works by its own power.

Cardinal Sarah is right: a renewal of the Church – even if one values pastoral plans and structural reforms more than he – will not happen without mysterium and the sublimity of encountering God in liturgy and prayer.

neumannFelix Neumann is social media editor at He has studied philosophy and political science and has been active in the Archdiocese of Freiburg in youth ministry. He is a member of the Gesellschaft katholischer Publizisten (society of Catholic publicists).

Reprinted with kind permission of Translation: AWR.




  1. If his critique is valid–and it is in many places, but not everywhere–I find his case for silence, ritual, and non-invented symbolism to be worth sound consideration.

    However, one can also point to the direction given from the CDWDS from the mid-90s to note that all the emphasis from Rome since then has been on the very wordiness Cardinal Sarah claims (and rightly) that distract us from an unencumbered experience of grace.

    More, I’d say that the appointment of bishops with minimal pastoral experience up to 2013 has done as much damage as poor liturgy. The key for the future is the cultivation of discipleship. One doesn’t make disciples by talking at them, or really, giving them “slavish” translations. The bishops’ bench of the early years of this century was filled with canon lawyers when what we needed were most pastors. If not mystics. Foremost among all the Church’s ministry is the liturgy for inspiring people, lifting their hearts and will to the Great Commission. You don’t do Matthew 28:19-20 in ecclesiastical tribunals as much as you do in the wide world.

    As for this: “The danger is real that the worshiping congregation focusses on itself and a pleasing aesthetic of bourgeois mediocrity,” all I can say is thank you Cardinal Medina and Pope Benedict. I am sure those men had good intentions at heart to direct the Church and its liturgy as they did. Likewise the intent of a narrative from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (though I’m more concerned about Jay Leno wannabes).

    It seems to boil down to a lack of trust in the liturgy, be it from a hardline to dial back reform, or an ill-considered attempt to be relevant and connect with people where they are or might be.

    It’s good to know Herr Neumann brings this sensitivity to youth ministry. Helpful to pair with criticism is also some ideas of success stories where he has been able to accomplish what he (and we) know the Church is in need of.

  2. “Cardinal Sarah is right: a renewal of the Church – even if one values pastoral plans and structural reforms more than he – will not happen without mysterium and the sublimity of encountering God in liturgy and prayer.”

    I wonder if there’s a formula for this–priest faces East, priest faces the people, Latin is spoken, mother tongue is spoken, gestures are just so–gee, abracadabra, sublimity, renewal.

    I’m hardly sympathetic to new age feel goodism in the liturgy, but then I don’t experience that in my Church. My sense is that there’s only so much the liturgy can do, and that the disposition of each individual, which is hidden and can’t be regulated, counts for much. Frankly I have a love of simple rites that might only involve a few people. I don’t know that trumpets and Latin and eastward facing priests always and necessarily bring more redemption. In other words, I wonder if reforming the liturgy this way or that is ultimately the most important thing in terms of renewing faith.

    I just don’t think that there’s a magic formula, a eureka that will satisfy everyone. Christianity isn’t just about liturgy. If there’s a falling away, maybe it involves more than that.

  3. It seems reasonable to me that one can agree with Card Sarah’s diagnosis and disagree with his prescription. I agree with much of what Neumann says, particularly about the liturgy being over-explained as it proceeds and inventing new symbolism.

    I like it, for example, when a homily will take the time to “preach the Mass,” if you will, when the lectionary supports it. I’ve seen many a light bulb go off when people realize, for example, that “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed” is slightly modified, but otherwise a direct quotation of scripture.

    It drives me batty, though, when someone says, “And now let’s stand,” or “And now let’s sit,” or whatever. There’s a fine line between wanting to accommodate visitors and talking down to the congregation. The Congregation needs the Subject Matter Expert to connect what we’re doing inside and outside of Mass to Tradition and Scripture; rather than tell me when to sit or stand or sing, one can explain /why/ I’m sitting, standing, and singing. Cf. giving a fish vs teaching someone to fish.

  4. Well, who gave us the over-wordy, verbose and too explanatory liturgy? JPII, BXVI, CDWDS, Vox Clara, etc. Physician, heal thyself!!

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