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Cdl. Sarah Rebukes the Clergy: Without Prayer, Your Works Are in Vain

The Day Is Now Far Spent
Cdl. Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat
Ignatius Press
385 pages
$16.96 paperback, $12.97 e-book

The new book by Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicholas Diat, The Day Is Now Far Spent, brims with wisdom and understanding, especially concerning the present crisis and scandal in the Church. Worth the purchase price is Sarah’s strong rebuke, especially to priests and prelates, for neglecting prayer and the sanctification and renewal that come with spending time in the presence of God:

“Without union with God, every attempt to strengthen the Church and the faith will be in vain. Without prayer, we will be clanging cymbals. We will sink to the level of media hypesters who make a lot of noise and produce nothing but wind. Prayer must become our innermost respiration. It brings us face to face with God. Do we have some other purpose?”

This repeated theme in his book reminds me of listening to Catholic radio not long after I had been received into the Church. A well known priest lamented that among the clergy, many spiritual obituaries begin with the words “Father stopped praying.”

I’ve seen a similar pattern among the laity over the years, where a threefold pattern emerges. First, they stop praying, and because their lives are no longer infused with the grace that comes from prayer, they become offended at God when this vale of tears visits them with significant affliction. They expected life to be “X,” and it turned out to be “Y.”

Phase 3 is when they return to their former way of life — i.e., the world — like the disciples who were offended by Christ’s teaching on his flesh and blood (Jn. 6:66).

Cardinal Sarah, the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, exhorts the clergy to humble themselves, and we know that humility precedes prayer. It’s no coincidence that Moses, the humblest man on the face of the Earth (Num. 12:3), had a unique relationship with God in that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11).

The humble soul has a radical dependence on God that drives men to their knees. They resonate with Christ’s words: “… apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5b).

Sarah understands that it is in the presence of God that much sanctification occurs. He cites the example of the calling of Isaiah (Is. 6:1–6). In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord and his glory filled the temple. Out of this encounter, the prophet became acutely aware of his own sinfulness: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The first pope had a similar experience in the story of the great catch of fish: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk. 5:8).

But just as the presence of God is a place where our sins are revealed, it is also a place where sanctification can happen. With Isaiah, one of the seraphs flew to him with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs and touched his mouth with it and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” That coal is a type of Christ.

Peter would experience his own deep sanctification after the Resurrection in the presence of the Lord. While in the presence of God, today’s orthodox Catholic can, in the light of his own frailties and sin, go to the throne of grace and find help and mercy in a time of need (Heb. 4:16).

This process isn’t as mystical and ethereal as some would think. For example, it’s common for practicing Catholics to go through phases where they feel tight-fisted with their time, talent, and treasure. Money is tight, time is constrained, and we aren’t in the mood to give our gifts for the benefit of others. But then in our morning devotional time, we read the story of “The Widow’s Mite” in the Gospel reading for the day.

Sarah laments that many prelates and priests have neglected prayer and sanctification and have turned their ministry into an NGO with religious vestments: “I deplore the fact that a good many bishops and priests neglect their essential mission, which is their own sanctification and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus, in order to get involved with sociopolitical issues like the environment, migrants, or the homeless.”

Sarah says these are worthy issues to discuss, but if the clergy “neglect evangelization and their own sanctification, their advocacy is in vain.” The Church can become a large social justice agency that secondarily, as a bonus, also has religious services.

With great interest I read Cardinal Sarah’s allusion to the conversation between the Roman prefect Rusticus and the Christian Hierax, one of the early martyrs. Rusticus asked him, “Where are your parents?” Hierax replied: “Our true father is Christ, and our mother: faith in him.”

When prelates and priests neglect prayer and the presence of God, they are like fatherless children. The catastrophic consequences of fatherless families are well documented: higher rates of poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, lower educational achievement, poorer physical and emotional health, earlier pre-marital sexual activity, and alarming rates of illegitimacy.

Denzel Washington said: “If the father is not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. … If the streets raise you, then the judge becomes your mother and prison becomes your home.”

If our clergy are fatherless, then this accounts for a significant amount of the ecclesial malfeasance in the Church: homosexual activity and predation, cover-ups, pay-offs, financial impropriety in general, embezzlement, and the whole laundry list of the seven deadly sins.

When we grow up in the presence of a good father, he models hard work, responsibility, integrity, and sanctity for us. Jesus did what He saw the Father do, and we should imitate Christ, but we cannot do that with much success if we are not in His presence.

In calling the clergy to sanctification and renewal through prayer, Sarah puts a strong emphasis on adoration. He exhorts worshipers to have seasons of prayer where “they ask for nothing.” He knows that the believer must first know the love of God before he can return that love with adoration. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). The good cardinal writes: “Man remains prostrate, literally crushed by the immense love God has for him. To adore is to let oneself be burned by the divine love.”

We become like what we adore. You see this with young actors and actresses. If they idolized Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep growing up, there’s often something in their demeanor, body language, or voice that resembles their idols.

Older orthodox Catholics may ask, “Where are the Fulton J. Sheens of today?” The answer is itself a question: “Where are the priests and prelates willing to spend one hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament as Sheen did?”

Instead, as Sarah avers, we see many in the clergy dancing around different “golden calves” related to Aquinas’s four substitutes for God: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. This is because, like Aaron, they are not in the presence of God and are instead listening to their own voice (subjectivism) and the voice of the people (the Zeitgeist).

Without a divine perspective, only idolatry can emerge (e.g., the Amazon Synod) and, with it, death. Ancient Hebrew wisdom tells us, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). We become our own gods, the arbiters of truth and morality. The teaching of the Magisterium is jettisoned, and “every man does what is right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25).

Though we know that the clergy will receive their own particular judgment before Christ (1 Cor. 3:1–15), everything that Cardinal Sarah says about sanctification and renewal through prayer in his new book also applies to the laity. We are not off the hook.

If we are to criticize priests and prelates, then we must “take the log out of [our] own eye, and then [we] will see clearly to take the speck out of [our] brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:5). We can then begin to fulfill Bishop Sheen’s prophecy that the laity will save the Church, and the mission he described will be attainable: “to see that the priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and the religious act like religious.”

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