Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book-length interview God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015), pages 125-6, and is used with permission.
Nicholas Diat: Benedict XVI often insisted that the liturgy was a moment when divine realities descended into the life of men. How do you understand this perspective?
Cardinal Sarah: The liturgy is a moment when God, out of love, desires to be in profound union with men. If we truly experience these sacred moments, we can encounter God. We must not fall into the trap that tries to reduce the liturgy to a simple place of fraternal conviviality. There are plenty of other places in life in which to enjoy each other’s company. The Mass is not a place where men meet in a trivial spirit of festivity. The liturgy is a great door that opens onto God and allows us symbolically to step beyond the walls of this world. The Holy Mass must be treated with dignity, beauty, and respect.
The celebration of the Eucharist requires first a great silence, a silence inhabited by God. It is necessary to pay attention to the material circumstances in order for this encounter to take place fruitfully. I am thinking, for example, of the dignity and exemplary character of the liturgical vestments and furnishing. The place where Mass is celebrated must be marked with a beauty that can foster recollection and encounter with God. Benedict XVI contributed much to the Church in reflecting on the meaning of the liturgy. His book The Spirit of the Liturgy is the fruit of mature theological thinking. If the liturgy becomes impoverished and loses its sacred character, it becomes a sort of profane space.
We live now in an era that is intensely seeking what is sacred; but because of a sort of dictatorship of subjectivism, man would like to confine the sacred to the realm of the profane. The best example of this is when we create new liturgies, the result of more or less artistic experiments, that do not allow any encounter with God. We claim somewhat arrogantly to remain in the human sphere so as to enter into the divine.
ND: For many years now, it seems that the liturgy has been divided, so to speak, along the lines of two different schools that are even opposed: the classical and the modern. What do you think?
CS: The liturgy is God’s time, and it tends to become the heart of an ideological pitched battle between different concepts. It is sad to enter God’s house with one’s shoulders loaded with weapons of war and one’s heart filled with hatred. If this division exists, do those who wage the battle really know what they are experiencing in the liturgy? Divine worship is an encounter with supernatural realities, through which a human being should be transformed and not reduced to vain, sterile endeavors. Does the God whom I encounter in the liturgy permit me to “cling” to one rite to the exclusion of the others? The liturgy can be nothing other than a relation with the divine. The lack of understanding between different ways of thinking about the liturgy can be explained by legitimate cultural factors, but nothing can justify its transformation into anathemas hurled by either side. Benedict XVI ardently wished to reconcile the different liturgical schools. He put a lot of energy and hope into that endeavor, and yet it has not arrived at its noble goal.
Indeed, beyond the rite, God looks first for human hearts. In the liturgy, Jesus gives us his Body and Blood to configure us to himself and to make us one with him. We become Christ, and his Blood makes us his kin, men and women immersed in his love, with the Holy Trinity dwelling in us. We become one family: God’s family.
If a person respects the ancient rites of the Church but is not in love, that individual is perishing. I think that this is the situation of the most extremist adherents of the various liturgical schools. Strict, almost fundamentalist ritualism or the modernist-type deconstruction of the rite can cut people off from a true search for the love of God. There is no disputing the fact that this love is born and grows in respect for [liturgical] forms; but the tensions lead sooner or later to nothingness.
As I speak to you, I hear the voice of Saint Ambrose, who, in his commentary on Cain and Abel, warns us, saying: “The Lord Jesus asked you to pray attentively and frequently, not so as to prolong your prayer in boredom, but rather to renew it in regularity. When prayer goes on too long, it very often drifts into emptiness, but when it becomes rare, negligence invades our heart.”
In Africa, when I attend Masses that last six hours, I see only a celebration that suits personal preferences. I strongly doubt that there is a true encounter with God in such moments of continual excitement and dances that are not very conducive to the encounter with the mystery. God is horrified by forms of ritualism in which man satisfies himself. Even though it is necessary to give thanks to God for the real vitality of our African liturgies and the full participation of the Christian people, when the mystery of the death and Resurrection is encumbered by additional elements that are foreign to the Eucharist, it gives the impression that we are celebrating ourselves. We absolutely must strive to do again what Jesus did. Let us remember his Word: “Do this in memory of me.”
The Catholic Church should reflect and take action in response to scandalous liturgical phenomena. Other people of faith, especially Muslims, are shocked to see the debasement of some celebrations.
This can be the case with processions, which lead us to the celebration of the great mystery of our faith but are made without any recollection, without any sense of wonder, without any religious “awe” at being face to face with God. The celebrants chat and discuss all sorts of trifling things while walking up the altar of the Lord!
This type of behavior cannot be observed in a mosque, because Muslims have more respect for the sacred than many Christians do.
Cardinal Robert Sarah was born in Guinea, West Africa. He was made an Archbishop by Pope Saint John Paul II, a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, and named the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014.