In the coronavirus pandemic, the sick and dying cannot be denied the sacramental assistance of a priest, Cardinal Robert Sarah said in an interview published Thursday.
Speaking to French magazine Valeurs actuelles, Sarah said that during the coronavirus emergency “priests must do everything they can to remain close to the faithful. They must do everything in their power to assist the dying, without complicating the task of the caretakers and the civil authorities.”
“But no one,” he continued, “has the right to deprive a sick or dying person of the spiritual assistance of a priest. It is an absolute and inalienable right.”
In the April 9 interview, the Guinean cardinal, who is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, also said he believed many priests had rediscovered their vocation to prayer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If [priests] cannot physically hold the hand of each dying person as they would like, they discover that, in adoration, they can intercede for each one,” he said, adding that he hoped the sick and isolated would feel connected to their priests through prayer.
Sarah also encouraged people living under lockdown to rediscover family prayer.
“It is time for fathers to learn how to bless their children. Christians, deprived of the Eucharist, realize how much communion was a grace for them. I encourage them to practice adoration from home, because there is no Christian life without sacramental life.”
“In the midst of our towns and villages, the Lord remains present,” he said.
The cardinal also noted one positive aspect of the pandemic had been the “spirit of self-giving and sacramentality coming out of hearts.”
There is a pressure to succeed and to admire and applaud society’s “winners,” even if success comes at the cost of “crushing others,” he said, pointing to the push to euthanize the sick and handicapped.
“Today, nations are moving to protect the elderly,” the cardinal underlined. “Suddenly we admire and applaud with respect and gratitude the nurses, doctors, volunteers, and everyday heroes.”
“Suddenly, one dares to cheer for those who serve the weakest. Our times thirsted for heroes and saints, but hid it and was ashamed of it.”
In the 5,300-word interview, Cardinal Sarah also spoke about his book on priestly celibacy, “From the Depths of Our Hearts,” which was published in February.
The book garnered controversy over a contribution by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Differing views emerged over whether the retired pope had agreed to be listed as a co-author of the book, as maintained by Sarah and the book’s French and English publishers.
The cardinal said he was struck by the violent reactions to the content of the book as well, which he and Benedict XVI intended as a “serene, objective, and theological reflection... based on Revelation and historical data.”
“Of course, I have suffered during this period, I felt the attacks against Benedict XVI very strongly. But deep down, I was especially hurt to see how hatred, suspicion and division have invaded the Church on such a fundamental and crucial issue for the survival of Christianity: priestly celibacy,” he added.
He said he regretted that there had been little discussion of what he considered the most important part of the book: the argument for the renunciation of material goods on the part of priests, and reform based on holiness and prayer.
“Our book was meant to be spiritual, theological and pastoral. The media and some self-proclaimed experts have made a political and dialectical reading of it,” he argued. “Now that the sterile polemics have dissipated, perhaps we will be able to really read it? Perhaps we will be able to discuss it peacefully?”
On the subject of the renunciation of goods, the cardinal also invited priests and bishops in Germany “to experience poverty, to renounce state subsidies.”
“A poor Church will not be afraid of the radicality of the Gospel. I believe that often our ties to money or secular power make us timid or even cowardly to proclaim the Good News,” he asserted, saying he believed that the German Church’s wealth tempted it to “change Revelation, to create another magisterium.”
Addressing the so-called synodal process in Germany, he said he had the impression that “the truths of the faith and the commandments of the Gospel are going to be put to the vote.”
The interview also addressed the 2019 Amazon synod. Cardinal Sarah said some of the negative reactions after the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia made it clear “the distress of the poor had been used to promote ideological projects.”
“I would like the synods to be more times of common prayer and not an ideological or political battlefield,” he noted, explaining that “the unity of the Church is based first of all on prayer.”
“If we do not pray together, we will always be divided,” he said.
Sarah also expressed the desire for the life of the Roman Curia to be further marked by a common life of prayer and adoration.
“I would like the life of the whole Church to be primarily a life of common prayer. I am convinced that prayer is our first duty as priests. From prayer will come unity. From prayer comes truth,” he said.
Cardinal Sarah called the crisis in the Church “a crisis of faith and a profound crisis of priesthood.”
But, he said, Vatican administration is not the center of the Church.
“The center of the Church is in the heart of every man who believes in Jesus Christ, who prays and worships. The center of the Church is at the heart of the monasteries. The center of the Church is above all in each tabernacle because Jesus is present there,” he said.
The Church is there to witness to the truth, he concluded. “Christians will always be unworthy of this mission, but the Church will always be there to witness to Christ.”