We were gathered around a campfire high in the Sierra Nevada. This was a Catholic backpacking trip, so talk naturally turned to goings on within the Church. After we discussed several topics, there was a lull.
I poked at the fire with a stick, sending a plume of sparks into the air, and looked at the priest to my left. His illuminated face looked Mosaic. A man with extensive contacts in Rome, he knew many of the “players,” so I asked, “When the next conclave comes around, who is on your short list?”
He flashed a smile and pointed a finger upward. “There’s only one name on my list,” he said. “Robert Sarah.” There were knowing nods, but these were people I’d expect to know about this African cardinal. Most Catholics in America—and elsewhere, I suppose—have never heard his name. They ought to learn it, because there is a fair chance that he will be the next pope, if the next conclave comes within five years or so. Cardinal Sarah will turn 71 in June.
Today he is the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He was appointed to that post by Pope Francis. It was Benedict XVI who made Sarah a cardinal and the prefect of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. Prior to that, John Paul II brought him to Rome to be secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
And before that, Robert Sarah was on a hit list.
A marked man
When he was thirty-four, Sarah became the youngest bishop in the world. John Paul named him the archbishop of Conakry in the West African nation of Guinea, a country of only 12 million people, 85 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining population is split about evenly between Christians of various persuasions and followers of indigenous religions. There are only 250,000 Catholics.
At the time Guinea suffered under a brutal Marxist dictatorship headed by Sékou Touré. The Church was given little room to maneuver. Priests and laymen were persecuted. Year by year Touré sought to tighten his control of the country.
He was on a state visit to Saudi Arabia when he had a heart attack. He was flown to the Cleveland Clinic, in the city of the same name, for specialized care. There he died the next day. When his desk in the presidential palace was examined, on it was found a list of those to die in the next round of executions. At the top of the list was the name of Robert Sarah.
No surprise, really, since Sarah had been a particularly unwelcome thorn in Touré’s side. That thorn had to be eliminated. Sarah suspected as much, but he was undeterred:
After hundreds of hours of prayer, I came to the conclusion that the worst that could happen to me was death; my life was nothing compared to the blatant injustices, the horrible poverty, and the unspeakable horrors that I saw each day. Terror reigned even in families, where a father might fear that his children would side with the dictatorship for the sake of expediency. I had to speak, even if my life was at stake.
Something good out of Guinea
Certain demons, we are told, can be expelled only with prayer and fasting. Sarah and his flock were surrounded by the dictatorship’s demons. Sarah battled them daily, and the battle was debilitating. He needed periodic refreshment.
He “established a program of regular spiritual retreats” for himself. “Every two months, I would leave, alone, for a completely isolated spot. I would subject myself to an absolute fast, with no food or water for three days.” He took nothing but a Bible, a book of spiritual readings, and a traveling Mass kit. “The Eucharist was my only food and my sole companion.”
When he was a boy, Sarah was inspired by the work of diligent French missionaries. Though an only child, with his parents’ blessing (they were converts) he pursued a religious vocation. He took particular interest in the liturgy, and it is a happy thought that today his official duties are precisely in that area. He has great devotion to traditional forms of worship—perhaps surprising in someone coming from a place like Guinea.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked Nathanael (John 1:46). “Can anything good come out of Guinea?” a modern Catholic might ask. Such skepticism is understandable. Many Catholics have never even heard of Guinea. Most who have probably can’t locate it on the map. (It’s almost at the westernmost bulge of African, north of Sierra Leone and Liberia and south of Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, if that’s any help.)
The country is abysmally poor. By American standards (as low as they have fallen), the educational system borders on the primitive; and yet we have Robert Sarah, a highly educated man not only deeply versed in theology but possessing a keen appreciation of the human condition, a product of his own and his people’s suffering.
An immensely rich book
His story is given in God or Nothing, an extended interview with French journalist and author Nicolas Diat. The cover of the book describes it as “a conversation on faith,” but a prospective reader should not expect the conversational duties to be split evenly. Diat poses a question or observation in one or two lines, and Sarah responds, eloquently and often touchingly, in one or two pages. Diat provides only the skeleton. Sarah provides all the flesh and connective tissue.
The first third or so of God or Nothing is chiefly autobiographical. In the remainder of the book Diat elicits from Sarah his observations on modern society, problems in the Church, and the spiritual life. This is an immensely rich book. I can’t think of anything as impressive coming from a prelate in years and years. This is a man doubly profound in both mind and heart.
It has become almost a commonplace to say that the future of the Church is to be found in Africa, where converts are many and faith is lively. If so, that future may be manifested in this singular man.
Robert Sarah, God or Nothing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 284 pages, $17.95.
Photo: François-Régis Salefran