Cardinal Sarah Urges Encounter with Whole Christ in Church, Liturgy

Posted June 14, 2017 7:18 pm by Mallory Nygard

Cardinal Sarah Urges Encounter with Whole Christ in Church, Liturgy


The Cardinal Newman Society’s delegate to the fourth Sacra Liturgia conference in Milan, Italy, held on June 6-9, continues to provide commentary on the conference and its implications for Catholic education. Jon Laird’s first article was a brief reflection of his experience as a young altar boy and the meaning of liturgy as part of his life. In this article, Laird summarizes the opening address of His Eminence Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on June 6.

The notion of sacredness is abused, particularly in the West. In the countries that claim to be secular, emancipated from religion and from God, there is no longer any connection with the sacred. A certain secularized mentality attempts to be liberated from it. . . .

Without radical humility that is expressed in gestures of adoration and in sacred rituals, no friendship with God is possible. (Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence, 223, 226)

Sacra Liturgia 2017 opened, as it did in 2016, with an address by a man who has mastered the paradoxical and delicate skill of articulating the importance of silence. Cardinal Sarah spoke of the liturgy from a Christological and ecclesiological perspective.

In this article, I will summarize the Cardinal’s address, which is not yet published in full, although the Sacra Liturgia Facebook page has published several excerpts. It also has not (as far as I know) been described thoroughly in any other published material. My future articles will address the relevance of several Sacra Liturgia presentations to the theological integrity, catechetical ministry, and liturgical praxis of Catholic educational institutions.

On holy ground

Speaking from the lectern in the Aula Magna of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Cardinal Sarah invoked the “sacred ground” of the sanctuary in the Basilica of St. Ambrose next door. Underneath this sanctuary, which was the site of several conference liturgies, lie relics of St. Ambrose himself. This invocation of “holy ground” called to my mind Moses’ approach of the burning bush and his attitude of humble and attentive adoration. Cardinal Sarah asked all present to “be attentive to the voice of the Lord” in humble silence.

The Cardinal expressed his gratitude to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for his support and encouragement, especially in the afterword to Sarah’s The Power of Silence, in which Benedict praises Pope Francis for his choice of Sarah to guide the liturgy. This led critics to complain that the Pope Emeritus was interfering in Church affairs. In his Sacra Liturgia address, Cardinal Sarah minced no words in calling such criticism “diabolical”:

The arrogance, the violence of language, the disrespect and the inhuman contempt for Benedict XVI are diabolical and cover the Church with a mantle of sadness and shame. These people demolish the Church and its profound nature.

He added, “A Christian does not fight anyone; a Christian does not have an enemy to defeat,” citing Christ’s command to Peter to put his sword in his scabbard.

Church “stands and falls with the liturgy”

Cardinal Sarah then quoted this passage of then-Cardinal Ratzinger about the centrality of the liturgy:

The Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, the faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatever. (Neil J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford eds., Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy)

Sarah affirmed the importance of the social and humanitarian projects of the Church but called to mind Pope Francis’ insistence that “the Church is not an NGO.” To further stress the universal importance of the liturgy, he stated that the true celebration of the liturgy was essential to renewal in any aspect of the Church.

Cardinal Sarah posed three questions and stated that the answers would illuminate the centrality of the authentic celebration of the liturgy: “Who is Jesus Christ?” “How do we encounter Jesus Christ?” “What is a Christian?”

Who is Jesus Christ?

Cardinal Sarah lamented that the modern academic separation of the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith” demythologizes Christ, who is preeminently our Lord, God, Savior, Creator and Redeemer. This approach makes the “historical Jesus” no more than a prophet or philosopher with valuable insights, stripping away what pertains to the realm of faith. If this is true, we may accept or reject His teachings; we may take Him or leave Him without any great consequences. On the other hand, if Jesus is the definitive revelation of God sent to save us from sin and death, then the consequences of rejecting Him are profound.

Indicating that today there is too much emphasis on a personal Christology which approaches Christ as “my brother,” Cardinal Sarah illustrated his point by reminding us of St. Thomas the Apostle’s encounter with Christ. Our approach to Christ, he says, should first and foremost be this cry of wonder: “My Lord and my God!” Multiple times he reminded us that in the liturgy we humbly worship the whole Christ, fully human, fully divine.

Expounding the union of Christ’s humanity and divinity, he reminded us that God condescended to become man so that man could become one with God, making us partakers in the divine nature. Cardinal Sarah asked, “Who would not tremble with amazement and fall upon his knees before such an unheard of privilege?”

How do we encounter Jesus Christ?

Cardinal Sarah stated that although many people meet Jesus Christ through extraordinary spiritual experiences, the ordinary way is ecclesial: that is, in and through the Church founded for that purpose. In other words, we do not ordinarily encounter Jesus as individuals standing before Him, but as a Church.

Today many deny this idea and prefer to set aside the Church in favor of a personal relationship with Jesus. Cardinal Sarah emphasized that if a person isn’t living an ecclesial relationship with Jesus Christ, he lacks something that is essential to being a Christian.

Cardinal Sarah quoted passages from De Mysteriis of St. Ambrose:

Open, then, your ears, inhale the good savour of eternal life which has been breathed upon you by the grace of the sacraments; which was signified to you by us, when, celebrating the mystery of the opening, we said, Epphatha, which is, Be opened, (Mark 7:34) that whosoever was coming in quest of peace might know what he was asked, and be bound to remember what he answered. . . .

You entered, then, that you might discern your adversary, whom you were to renounce as it were to his face, then you turned to the east; for he who renounces the devil turns to Christ, and beholds Him face to face. (H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth, trans., from Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight,

After providing context for these passages—the neophyte taking his place within the Church in the celebration of her liturgy—Cardinal Sarah renewed his call for an increase in the practice of ad orientem liturgy, in which priest and people are united in encountering Jesus face to face. Sarah had already made a strong appeal for ad orientem at the Sacra Liturgia 2016 conference in an address which generated a great deal of controversy.

What is a Christian?

Establishing that the primary way we encounter Christ is through the Church’s common worship paved the way for Cardinal Sarah to define “Christian” in terms of liturgical participation:

A Christian is one who has been washed clean by the Church in baptism and continues to draw more and more deeply from the source and summit of the Church’s life and ministry, the sacred liturgy.

In other words, I am living a truly Christian life to the extent I am participating in the liturgy. Cardinal Sarah stated that the Church’s precepts regarding liturgical participation (Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation, annual confession, reception of communion during the Easter season) are to be considered the bare minimum to call oneself a Christian. Each of us should strive to live a liturgical life to the fullest extent possible for our state in life.

Cardinal Sarah closed his discussion of these three questions by concluding that “there is no such thing as a standalone Christian.”


To transition from the theological basis to practical implications, Cardinal Sarah quoted from a 2012 audience of Pope Benedict XVI:

In this we must bear in mind and accept the logic of God’s Incarnation: he made himself close, present, entering into history and into human nature, making himself one of us. And this presence continues in the Church, his Body. So, the Liturgy is not the memory of past events, but is the living presence of the Paschal Mystery of Christ who transcends and unites times and places. If in the celebration the centrality of Christ did not emerge, we would not have Christian liturgy, totally dependent on the Lord and sustained by his creative presence. God acts through Christ and we can act only through and in him. The conviction must grow within us every day that the liturgy is not our or my “doing” but rather is an action of God in us and with us.

It is not, therefore, the individual — priest or member of the faithful — or the group celebrating the liturgy, but the liturgy is primarily God’s action through the Church which has her own history, her rich tradition and her creativity. This universality and fundamental openness, which is proper to the whole of the liturgy, is one of the reasons why it cannot be conceived of or modified by the individual community or by experts, but must be faithful to the forms of the universal Church. (Pope Benedict XVI, October 3, 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Cardinal Sarah proceeded to offer three proposals:

First proposal

The Cardinal’s first proposal flowed from the recognition that it is “a grave scandal that so many absent themselves from the liturgy.” He called for us to exercise fraternal correction in love and referred to a homily of Pope St. John Paul II appealing for those who had fallen away to “come home.” But it is our responsibility, said Cardinal Sarah, to ensure that the home to which they are returning (referring to the liturgy) is as it should be.

Noting the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II, he renewed his call for an “enrichment of the liturgical reform.” He emphatically stated that Vatican II is not a break from the past, that it is not contrived, not a construction based on new ecclesiology. The council, he said, did not call for rupture, but rupture is what took place, and for the good of souls it must be healed. Thus, authentic liturgical practice is part of the Church’s missionary imperative.

Second proposal

The Cardinal asked us to reflect that it is the “whole Christ” himself who acts in the sacred liturgy, and he suggested that this reflection would bring us to a realization that

a disposition of reverence and of awe is absolutely necessary before all things liturgical, before the privileged divine encounter that the liturgical rites facilitate. It will remind us that we must prepare ourselves for this encounter so that it may be ever more profound, so that we may draw more deeply from its riches and so that it will bear ever greater fruit in our Christian lives.

To this end, we must use silent prayer, contemplation, confession, fasting and a disposition of profound humility.

Third proposal

Cardinal Sarah’s third proposal was to reflect on the “beauty, appropriateness and pastoral value” of the practice of receiving communion kneeling and on the tongue. He cited several points to support this practice:

  • Even Jesus himself prayed on his knees; how much more should we kneel when approaching God?
  • If, as St. Paul taught, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10), how much more important is it that every knee should bow when receiving his very presence?
  • Pope St. John Paul II, even up to his last days when his body was wracked with sickness, could not bring himself to sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but always knelt, even though he required assistance to get up.
  • Mother Teresa never touched Jesus’ body in the Blessed Sacrament, but she adored and contemplated it with profound reverence. The sense of awe she had before the presence of Christ led her always to receive communion only on the tongue. Cardinal Sarah’s proposal combines the profound testimony of these two modern saints.


To conclude his address, Cardinal Sarah quoted again the audience of Pope Benedict XVI mentioned earlier:

In the Church’s Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first,” love can also blossom as a response within us.

It was evident from observing the liturgical celebrations during the week which were celebrated in the ordinary form that many had taken the Cardinal’s third proposal to heart immediately. I myself, though I have received communion on the tongue for as long as I remember, have added kneeling to this practice, and I hope to promote it to the extent possible in my own parish.

Further implications

The length of Cardinal Sarah’s address, which took him an hour and a half to complete, prevents me from engaging in any analysis in this abbreviated summary, which is itself rather lengthy. However, in future articles, I will discuss more of the Cardinal’s comments—along with comments of other presenters—relevant to several areas of interest to Catholic educational institutions. Those articles will concentrate on three main categories: theological integrity, catechetical ministry and liturgical praxis.

Jon Laird is the Director of Music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Woodbridge, Va. In addition to his parish duties, Jon is active as a freelance organist and pianist specializing in vocal accompaniment and as a piano technician. He also operates Laudate! Choir Camp, a summer music camp for children with an emphasis on the Catholic choral tradition. Jon holds a Master of Music degree in Sacred Music (emphasis organ) from The Catholic University of America and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The post Cardinal Sarah Urges Encounter with Whole Christ in Church, Liturgy appeared first on Cardinal Newman Society.

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