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Francis accepts resignation of traditionalist African Cardinal Sarah

Various mainstream media sources interpreted the event as Francis removing a vocal opponent to his vision for the Catholic Church.
Mon Feb 22, 2021 - 5:03 pm EST
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Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vaticans Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments

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ROME, February 22, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) –  Pope Francis unexpectedly accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments eight months after Sarah submitted his resignation, as is customary, on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

Last June, when the Cardinal submitted his resignation, he stated publicly at the time that he was “happy to continue my work within the Congregation for Divine Worship.” It is not unusual for a pope to let a cardinal serve a few years beyond his 75th birthday, as is the case with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who at 76 still heads the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who at 79 still heads the Congregation for Clergy.

The Vatican Press Office announced Cardinal Sarah’s departure on Saturday without naming, as is usually the case, who will take his place.

“Today, the Pope accepted the resignation of my office as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship after my seventy-fifth birthday,” tweeted the Cardinal.

“I am in God's hands. The only rock is Christ. We will meet again very soon in Rome and elsewhere,” he added.

Vatican observers may see some similarity between the Pope’s acceptance of Sarah’s resignation and the Pope’s 2017 acceptance of the resignation of traditional-minded Cardinal Gerhard Müller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the end of his five-year term. With outspokenly orthodox Cardinal Raymond Burke being demoted by Pope Francis from the Vatican’s highest court in 2014, there are now three less traditionally-minded voices within the Curia. 

Sarah was born in Guinea in 1945. He was 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 Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014.

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Various mainstream media sources interpreted the event as Francis removing a vocal opponent to his vision for the Catholic Church.

“In accepting Cardinal Sarah’s resignation, the pope has removed a subordinate out of step with his approach to liturgy, homosexuality and relations with the Muslim world,” wrote Francis Rocca in The Wall Street Journal.

NPR shared the Journal’s perspective.

“Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea as head of the Vatican's liturgy department, removing a conservative who was seen as an opponent of the pontiff's vision for the church,” reported NPR, adding later in its report, “By accepting the cardinal's resignation, Pope Francis ousted a proponent of more traditional Catholic liturgy.”

Even so-called Catholic media saw a similar significance to the Pope’s action. The Jesuit-run America magazine that carries articles by pro-LGBT priest James Martin said Sarah’s views “contrasted” with those of the Pope.

“A number of the cardinal’s public statements on the liturgy and other topics reflected a pre-Vatican II traditionalist outlook that at times openly contrasted with the direction given by Pope Francis, who is continuing to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council,” wrote Gerard O’Connell.

Cardinal Sarah has defended traditional Catholic practices, such as receiving Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue and celebrating Mass facing the east (ad Orientem). He has warned that the Church is facing a “grave risk” of schism over morality. He has told priests that they cannot shy away from the “hard” teachings of the Church on abortion and homosexuality. He has rebuked Martin for misrepresenting the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, saying that same-sex attraction is “at odds with human nature” and same-sex relations are “gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them." He has called Catholics to “revolt” against lies that attack traditional family values. 

In his 2017 book The Power of Silence, Sarah outlined what he saw as a crisis in the Church.

“The Church today is going through unprecedented exterior and interior trials. Something like an earthquake is seeking to demolish her doctrinal foundations and her centuries-old moral teachings,” he wrote.

He wrote that he opposes shepherds within the Church who no longer believe in the Bible and who depart from Catholic teaching and sacred tradition.

“I will untiringly denounce those who are unfaithful to the promise of their ordination. In order to make themselves known or to impose their personal views, both on the theological and the pastoral level, they speak again and again. These clerics repeat the same banal things. I could not affirm that God dwells within them,” he wrote. Sarah wrote that “Bishops that scatter the sheep that Jesus has entrusted to them will be judged mercilessly and severely by God.”

In a 2019 interview, however, Sarah said that it is not correct to say that he opposes the Pope.

“The truth is that many write not to bear witness to the truth, but to pit people against each other, to damage human relations. They don’t care about the truth. The truth is that those who oppose me to the Holy Father cannot present a single word of mine, a single phrase of mine, or a single attitude of mine to support their absurd, and I would say diabolical statements. The Devil divides, pits people against one another. The truth is that the Church is represented on earth by the Vicar of Christ, that is, the Pope. And whoever is against the Pope is ipso facto outside the Church,” he said.

While Sarah may not oppose the Pope, the Pope has certainly opposed the Cardinal.

In 2017, Pope Francis issued a public correction to Sarah over the cardinal’s attempt to interpret the Pope’s liturgy reform in an orthodox manner. Sarah had claimed in an article that the pope's directives on the Liturgy, titled Magnum Principium, did not allow bishops’ conferences, but the Vatican, to have the final word on Mass translations. He was simply reading the Pope’s directives through the lens of a 2001 instruction titled Liturgiam Authenticam. But the Pope told Sarah that those norms had been abrogated and that the Cardinal had misunderstood the Pope’s directives.

In 2016, the Vatican made it clear that it had rejected the Cardinal’s invitation to priests around the world to begin celebrating Mass facing the east (ad Orientem) during Lent the following year.

While Sarah has issued strong words defending traditional practices of the Church, he has nevertheless, as head of  the Congregation for Divine Worship, overseen the introduction of novel practices within the Church that would be unthinkable in previous generations. This includes overseeing in 2016 the “innovation,” at the request of Pope Francis, of allowing women to participate in the Holy Thursday ceremony of the washing of the feet. Until that point, the ceremony was reserved exclusively for men following the historical example of Christ, who washed his male apostles’ feet during the last supper prior to making them priests.

Last December, the Congregation for Divine Worship backed a decision of a U.S. priest to ban reception of Holy Communion on the tongue in his diocese on account of the coronavirus outbreak. The statement, from which Sarah’s signature was missing, contradicted a 2009 letter from the same Congregation regarding the same question in the midst of the H1N1 influenza pandemic. At that time, the Vatican under Pope Benedict wrote that Church law on the subject stipulates “each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue" and that this law may not be abrogated.

The Cardinal was the center of two significant controversies last year that may have complicated his relationship with Pope Francis.

Sarah found himself at the center of controversy last May after a historic appeal of Catholic prelates and lay leaders decrying the crackdown on basic freedoms over the coronavirus was published with the Cardinal being listed as one of the signers. Sarah claimed that he had withdrawn his signature at the last moment despite the appeal’s organizer, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, claiming that he had evidence to the contrary.

A few months earlier, Sarah found himself facing attack over his publication of a book co-authored with Pope Benedict that defended the male priesthood and priestly celibacy just months after the Church had concluded the Amazon Synod, which was viewed by many observers as setting the stage to an acceptance of female deacons and married priests.


  catholic, congregation for divine worship, pope francis, robert sarah

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