Cardinal Sarah: The Vatican’s Great Survivor

‘Carefully outspoken’ is the best description of the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Throughout his tenure in the department of the Roman Curia responsible for overseeing the Church’s liturgical life, the 72-year-old Guinean has made headlines with his parrhesia – his frank talk – about matters ranging from the posture of priests celebrating Mass, to the powers of his office when it comes to curating liturgical translations.

Most recently, he wrote the preface to a book on The distribution of Communion on the hand: a historical, juridical and pastoral survey, by Fr Federico Bortoli, which constructs in laborious detail the process by which what began as an abuse ­– ie, receiving Holy Communion standing and in the hand ­– gained increasing measures of tolerance and legal protection.

Cardinal Sarah’s outspokenness has made headlines, not least because his positions are apparently often at odds with Pope Francis’s own. If Sarah is not on board with the “Franciscan” view of things, why is he still in the job?

For one thing, he is willing to toe the line, even if he dances a little on one side of it.

It helps, too, that Pope Francis is not very sensitive to questions of liturgical form. He has kept Benedict XVI’s Master of Ceremonies, Mgr Guido Marini, and mostly let him work freely when it comes to papal liturgies. Francis occasionally celebrates in Cardinal Sarah’s preferred ad orientem posture ­– ie, facing the same direction as the congregation – most notably in the Sistine Chapel, at the high altar Benedict had restored to use in 2008.

Indeed, Pope Francis told Cardinal Sarah he wants him to continue with the liturgical reform Benedict XVI began. Sarah is just doing the job Francis gave him as he sees fit to do it.

Disagreements between the two men have surfaced ­– for instance, over Francis’s reforms to the way liturgical translations are prepared and approved. The changes Francis made effectively weakened the CDW and gave more control over the translation of liturgical texts to bishops’ conferences. Cardinal Sarah wrote a commentary on the new law, in which he asserted that ultimate authority still rested with the CDW. When that commentary was leaked online, Francis wrote to Sarah to clarify the matter and instructed him “[to] provide [Francis’s] response to the same sites”, which had carried Sarah’s commentary, “and also to send it to all episcopal conferences, and the members and consultors of [Sarah’s] dicastery”. Francis carefully couched his rebuke, saying the leak had been “erroneously” attributed to Sarah (though there was little doubt that he had written it).

With his preface to Fr Bortoli’s book, Cardinal Sarah has perhaps taken another dangerous step. Some headlines proclaimed that Sarah had called receiving Communion standing and in the hand a “diabolical attack,” the purpose of which is to “extinguish faith in the Eucharist”. This is significant because Benedict XVI had re-introduced the practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue during papal liturgies – at least for those receiving from the Holy Father – while Pope Francis made something of a point of walking that policy back in St Peter’s Basilica.

Now, Cardinal Sarah did not say what some headlines say he said ­– not exactly. Sarah was discussing in general terms a diffuse lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, which he attributed to the work of Satan. “Why do we insist on communicating standing in the hand?” he asked. “Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?” So, Sarah also did not exactly not say what many headlines say he said, either. But when a meeting with Sarah appeared on Francis’s schedule last week, there was speculation that a rebuke might be coming.

The Pope replaced the CDW’s membership in 2016, stacking it with members not considered well disposed to the “reform of the reform” that Cardinal Sarah understood it was his task to continue, essentially isolating him within his own dicastery. Put bluntly, Francis may simply think it best to keep Sarah close and reachable by embarrassment short of dismissal.

The increased outspokenness of Cardinal Gerhard Müller since his dismissal as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may suggest the prudence of such a consideration. In any case, Cardinal Sarah seems determined to speak his mind: carefully and respectfully, but frankly. That is bound to make his exile-in-place costly for Francis.

Christopher Altieri is General Manager at Vocaris Media, which specializes in Church communications.

This article first appeared in the March 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

Featured image: Cardinal Robert Sarah celebrates Mass at the London Oratory in 2016 (Fr Lawrence Lew, OP)


  1. I say the Pope would do well to dispense with him. A team of rivals is well and good and all behind closed doors, but this very latest suggests he’s moved from being a laughing stock/nuisance to actively destructive.

    1. Cardinal Sarah is not a “laughing stock/nuisance” and nor is he “destructive”. He is a holy priest who has endured persecution for the Faith and who has a great love for God. The Church dearly needs men like Cardinal Sarah.

  2. The last two paragraphs are well observed, but paragraph 3 — “which constructs in laborious detail the process by which what began as an abuse – ie, receiving Holy Communion standing and in the hand ­– gained increasing measures of tolerance and legal protection” — caught my attention early on.

    This statement is complete nonsense. Communion in the hand did not begin as an abuse but as a development. It’s one of many classic instances in the Roman Rite after the Council of edict catching up with practice. People forget, or never knew because they weren’t around back then, that the rules on Communion in the hand, non-ordained ministers of Communion, Communion from the chalice, women readers in the sanctuary, etc, etc, were all changed because so many were already doing what had not yet been formally approved. These and many other developments had been found not to be objectively sinful after all, and even beneficial to the spirituality of the faithful; and so the Church gave them its blessing. Not a whiff of “increasing measures of tolerance and legal protection” of “abuses”, which would have implied a reluctance that was actually not the case at all.

    1. And would you likewise laud a return to ad orientem and Communion on the tongue while kneeling as developments to which the Church should give its blessing? As for “implied reluctance”, there was an attempt to limit the spread of Communion in the hand, see Paul VI’s Memoriale Domini: “From the responses received, it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline [i.e., Holy Communion on the tongue] should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibility and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful.”

      1. I want to step in with a clarification here, for this is an attempted “gotcha” of a sort that I think is not helpful.

        There are all kinds of developments in all eras of liturgical history. Some of them are judged to be good, some of them not so good, and of course opinions sometimes vary on this. Just because someone favors one liturgical development, this by no means that they’ve been “caught out” because they ought to support other developments too. You get to use common sense, you get to use criteria of theological appraisal, you get to come to your own evaluations.

        Tempers are running so hot around communion in the hand or on the tongue, it is difficult for me to attempt to state facts, but I will try anyway.

        Yes, it is true that Paul VI was skeptical of Communion in the hand at one point, as were the world’s bishops. But it didn’t stop there. Bishops around the world requested an indult for Communion in the hand, and the Holy See approved every such request. This may be hard for some to acknowledge or accept, but I believe it is a historical fact. I think we have to go by the most recent official action, and it is this. How the officials came to their position, or what they held at an earlier point before coming to their final decision, is interesting but not determinative.

        It just doesn’t make sense to me to say that “they approved it but it doesn’t quite count because they were skeptical earlier so we should all be skeptical now.” You can make all kinds of claims (of which I’m skeptical for theological reasons) about how some people were supposedly disobedient or forced the authorities’ hands, but I don’t see how this lessens in any way the force of the final decision the authorities made. They get to make decisions for their own reasons, and their decisions then stand as the official policy – unless and until they change the policy.


      2. Yes, clarification is indeed necessary. While latter ratified by the Church as a legitimate development, Communion in the hand at the time of its introduction in the 60’s was indeed and abuse, i.e. contrary to the then current liturgical law. Its latter ratification does not change the nature of its introduction. My point was that we need to wait for such ratification before we declare a novelty in the liturgy a proper development.

    2. Perhaps if Chris were writing for Pray Tell rather than the Herald he would have avoided the term “abuse” (perhaps not, but I’ve not known him to provoke without good reason). But I think interpretive charity would suggest that we read “abuse” as simply “contrary to current liturgical law.” So, yes, communion in the hand was an “abuse” in that sense, as was, at one time, saying the Last Gospel at the altar rather than on the way back to the sacristy. It is pretty clear to me that, whether he thinks it a good idea or not, Chris would not call communion in the hand an “abuse” today, since it is no longer contra legem.

      Jonathan Day had some typically sensible things to say about the term “abuse” a few years back. I don’t like the term, since I think it is confusing to use the same term for breaking a liturgical law and for raping a child, but I can’t imaging Chris was equating one with the other (though there are those who might).

      1. By way of reply to Rev Forte:

        Was the inclusion of filioque before it became official, an abuse?
        Must legislation preceed practice?
        Is that the way human culture develops?

        I would be reluctant to use such inflammatory language when constructing a line of defence. I find your choice of terminology utterly unpersuasive and akin to scraping the bottom of the barrel.

  3. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, I don’t get the sense that Cardinal Sarah is truly at odds with the liturgical vision of Pope Francis, at least to the degree that is often implied. Liturgy obviously isn’t as much of a pet project to Francis as his predecessor Benedict, but his retention of the very traditional papal MCs he inherited from Benedict, his appointment of more traditionalists to CDWDS (minus some EF activists), his lack of rebuke to Sarah’s recent statements on communion, and the other oddities the author points out, suggests he is maybe more privy to Sarah’s vision for the liturgy and Benedict’s “new liturgical movement” than we may have been led to believe. Let’s also not forget that Francis himself appointed Sarah to lead CDWDS, and if he truly couldn’t stand him he would’ve sacked him by now, the same way he did Cardinal Burke. It’s certainly possible the Pontiff played some “Game of Thrones” tactics when hiring Sarah, either to win loyalty from traditionalists or to settle some undisclosed debt with him. But that Sarah’s still here, despite the controversy he sometimes causes, tells me Francis finds him helpful in advancing liturgical renewal in the Church.

  4. How good of Fr. Anthony to provide Christopher Altieri an opportunity to address the Pray Tell community with an article otherwise confined to London’s right leaning journal The Herald. I found it striking as to how more traditional Catholics express their understanding of a churchman like Cdl. Robert Sarah.
    It had been a long time since I came across the viewpoint that receiving communion in the hand originated as an abuse. How silly of me to have thought that Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ inaugurated the related practice of administering communion in the hand to people reclining at table. When I went to seminary, Tradition referred to beliefs and practices that were handed down to us from the apostles and their successors. The alternative viewpoint apparently uses Tradition to describe any practice that developed in the late medieval period as long as it continued for hundreds of years thereafter. The truth is that there have been developments and maldevelopments. Neglecting to teach the members of Christ’s royal priesthood that they had a right to full, active, and conscious participation in the Sacred Mysteries was one such maldevelopment. Another was teaching a certain form of external piety as the only proper manner of showing reverence while at worship.

      1. Fr. Duncan, I’d have to disagree with you here. I certainly appreciate my collaboration with Catholic Herald and have been happy to write for them. But proportionately, their content is slanted more toward the conservative side. Not extreme or traditionalist, but “right-leaning” sounds correct to me. And I think The Tablet is left-leaning. But for all that, I suppose the labels we use don’t matter that much. Thanks for your comment.
        Fr. Anthony

  5. “Francis occasionally celebrates in Cardinal Sarah’s preferred ad orientem posture ­– ie, facing the same direction as the congregation – most notably in the Sistine Chapel, at the high altar Benedict had restored to use in 2008.”

    Francis has celebrated Mass ad orientem only 4 times since he became pope. The occasion is when he holds baptisms in the Sistine chapel every year on the Sunday celebrating the baptism of the Lord. He does so, imho, because the chapel would need to have the paraphernalia for the baptisms first removed to be able to set up a freestanding altar. Considering that there are usually about 20-30 squalling babies, their anxious parents and numerous churchmen uncomfortable listening to those babies, Francis is considerate in not wanting to impose the delay to make the necessary arrangements. I have read that the morning after his election when he celebrated Mass with all the cardinals in the Sistine chapel, he delayed the Mass to have a free-standing altar set up. The author’s implication seemed to be that Francis celebrating ad orientem has been more frequent. “Occasional”, as he puts it, should really be “infrequently”..

    1. Reyanna, could you cite the source for your statement regarding “numerous churchmen uncomfortable listening to those babies”.

      Also, occasional = infrequently

      From Google:
      occurring, appearing, or done infrequently and irregularly.
      “the occasional car went by but no taxis”

      1. You can, as I have each year, watch the event on the Vatican YouTube channel and look at the expressions on their faces. For the most part the look like listening to fingernails on a blackboard woukd be more pleasant to them or as if they are undergoing a painful penance. It’s that blatantly evident.

      2. Wouldn’t Pope Francis be able to arrange for a free-standing altar in advance and arrange the space a day or so beforehand so that no one would have to wait around?

        Regardless, I think it is actually a rather big deal that Pope Francis celebrates one very widely-seen Mass each year ad orientem when you consider the ridiculous stigma attached to the practice. There are many priests and bishops who would never celebrate Mass that way – especially not a Mass that would be covered by secular news agencies worldwide.

  6. I don’t worry about this issue. Rome is as far from me as Beijing. It seems petty. It is an emotional issue because it is an issue of piety, both personal and institutional (Church). If a person comes before me kneeling/standing with tounge or hands extended, I dispense the Sacrament in the obviously desired form because both forms are recognized by the Church and accordingly accepted by me.

    1. “I don’t worry about this issue. Rome is as far from me as Beijing. It seems petty. It is an emotional issue because it is an issue of piety, both personal and institutional (Church). If a person comes before me kneeling/standing with tongue or hands extended, I dispense the Sacrament in the obviously desired form because both forms are recognized by the Church and accordingly accepted by me.”

      Thank you. A voice of charity and reason in the comments section. And at the altar.

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