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ROME, July 8, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — An eminent African cardinal has strongly emphasized the identity of the Catholic priest as the caretaker of souls. 

“Today we speak little about the Gospel and we don’t speak about souls anymore,” Cardinal Robert Sarah, the former Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, said in a recent interview.  

“Pastoral care today is concerned principally with the body, life, material things,” he added. 

“Thus, when Jesus says, ‘What does it profit a man that he should gain the whole world but lose his soul’, all the modern translations say ‘but lose his own life’ (Matt 16:26).” 

The cardinal pointed out that the Latin words of the pious centurion “and my soul shall be healed,” repeated by Catholics before Holy Communion, have been rendered “and I will be saved” in Italian.  

“The priest has the care of souls,” Sarah stated firmly.  

“If he does not care about souls, he becomes useless. This means, for a priest, to take care of others, to be a ‘curate’ [curato, curé], like St. John Vianney.”  

Sarah granted a half-hour interview to journalist Lorenzo Bertocchi that appeared in this month’s issue of the Italian Catholic Il Timone (“The Helm”) magazine, answering questions about the crisis in the contemporary priesthood, priestly celibacy, and priestly identity, among other subjects. 

Regarding the crisis, the cardinal stated that everything “bearing in itself the clear signs of stability, immutability, and eternity” in our society — including both the priesthood and marriage — is in crisis. Sarah explained that because the “man of today” lives on sensations, emotional impulses and material things, he thinks a life dedicated to spiritual and supernatural values seems “impossible or absurd.” 

“The priestly life falls victim to this crisis of modernity,” Sarah said. 

“The priestly vocation is always born in the context of the faith in the man’s life and community, be it the family or the parish,” he continued. 

“Without faith in God, he would not understand the reason to give his whole life for Christ, for the Church, and for souls, always. For many men today, the priesthood is … a useless life except and only when it concerns itself with the material needs of others.” 

But, as Sarah points out, it is not necessary to be a priest to sustain people materially. Priests are called to take up the mission Jesus left to the 11 faithful apostles. 

“In the moment we chose to follow the priestly calling, we chose to represent Christ in the world, on this earth, to reflect the Sun that is Christ,” the cardinal said. 

“We have chosen to receive and carry forward the mission that Jesus has left and entrusted to his apostles before returning to the Father.” 

The apparent “uselessness” of the priestly vocation is the hallmark that gives meaning to the priestly life, Sarah said, and he decried contemporary “non-Catholic” trends in Catholic theology that have contributed to the crisis in the priesthood.  

“A certain liberal, anthropomorphic theology has impoverished the nature and identity of the Catholic priesthood, giving it a functionalist and horizontal dimension,” the cardinal said.  

“This theology, which was victorious in the Church and which many [Council] Fathers supported before, during and after the work in the [Second Vatican] Council chamber, represents neither the mind of the Church nor most of the Fathers who took part in the last Council.” 

Sarah explained that this “non-Catholic” thinking, as he said Pope Paul VI had defined it, had entered Catholic theology departments, seminaries, and parishes and “contaminated the doctrine of the priesthood and the way of life of so many priests.”  

Priestly celibacy ‘is more useful than ever’ 

Regarding calls to drop mandatory celibacy, Sarah said the “old” argument that celibacy has caused a priest shortage is dealing in “a pretext or an excuse.” Citing the book on priestly celibacy he recently wrote with Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinal praised the state as a “gift” and “a sign of conformation to Christ.”  

“Priestly celibacy in the Church is one of the most eloquent signs of the supernatural and transcendent dimension of the priesthood intended by Jesus,” he said.  

“It’s a gift that the Catholic Church has guarded from the very beginning, from apostolic ties, keeping it as a sign of conformation to Christ.” 

Celibacy also helps the priest resemble Christ, particularly in his dedication to souls. 

“The priest must resemble Christ, spouse of the Church,” Sarah said.  

“He has no other loves than the Church and the souls for which he gives his life, like Jesus,” he added. 

“This sign/scandal for the world today is more useful than ever.”  

In a society where the mass media spreads a “pansexualist and eroticist culture,” young people need celibate priests as models of generous, selfless love and, Sarah said, “to discover the beauty of a love given to everyone without being exclusively for someone, like the love of our Lord Jesus for us.”  

The cardinal recognizes that living this way takes training in spiritual asceticism “because there’s no shortage of opportunities for temptation.” He noted that there are many dangers in the priestly life today, particularly for young priests, thanks to a youth spent with bad companions and/or in front of television and computer, without proper models of life. Not knowing to structure their day is a problem for priests, as is spending too much time on the internet.  

“It is true that a solid doctrinal preparation is not enough to avoid sin, but a good preparation, good reading, and a good spiritual director are the solid basis for [the priest’s] own spiritual life,” Sarah said, and emphasized that the priest should not leave his continuing spiritual formation “to chance” but to tend to his own soul before taking care of other people. At the same time, however, the priest must have a “zeal” for other souls.  

“In light of what has been said, there follows the importance of the care of souls, the zeal for souls, ‘animarum zelus,’ which is the interest a shepherd must have in the eternal salvation of the little sheep in his care,” Sarah said and quoted extensively from a Holy Thursday 2012 homily by Pope Benedict XVI: 

… As priests … we are concerned for the whole person, including his or her physical needs … And yet we are concerned not only with the body, but also with the needs of the soul: with those who suffer from the violation of their rights or from destroyed love, with those unable to perceive the truth, those who suffer for lack of truth and love. We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul. And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

Cardinal Sarah is known and loved throughout the Catholic Church for his adherence to perennial doctrine and his spiritual writings, including God or Nothing (2015), The Power of Silence (2016), The Day Is Now Far Spent (2019), and his work with Benedict XVI celebrating celibacy, From the Depths of Our Hearts (2020).  

Sarah was born in Guinea in 1945 and ordained a priest in 1969. Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Conakry 10 years later, when Sarah was 34. He was appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2001. Nine years later, Benedict XVI appointed Sarah president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum.” He was made a Cardinal in 2010. Pope Francis appointed Sarah the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014 and accepted his resignation in 2021, about six months after the cardinal turned 75.