Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the May 17, 2016, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In an arena where, arguably, the most important thing he could do is to encourage charity and an irenic spirit toward various forms of eucharistic piety, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has once again demonstrated that what he really does best is sow division.

He did it concerning washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday (delaying more than a year in fulfilling Pope Francis’s request). He did it by urging that altars be turned around so that Mass would be celebrated with the priest’s back to the people (for which he was reprimanded). He did it by minimizing and misinterpreting the pope’s initiative on liturgical translation (prompting a public correction from the pope). Now, he is sowing division concerning how Communion is received.

In a preface to a new book, the cardinal rages about offenses against the Eucharist. He fulminates over Satanism and black Masses, and then—astonishingly—links these phenomena with receiving Communion in the hand. He evaluates this liturgical practice as pure evil, a tool in the hand of Satan, promoting unbelief. Those who take Communion in the hand are on the side of Lucifer in the great cosmic struggle of good against evil, Sarah claims. They are opposed to Michael and all the angels. If you think I am exaggerating, see for yourself. Here are his own words:

[W]e can understand how the most insidious diabolical attack consists in trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist, sowing errors and favoring an unsuitable manner of receiving it. Truly the war between Michael and his Angels on one side, and Lucifer on the other, continues in the heart of the faithful: Satan’s target is the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated host.... Why do we insist on communicating standing in the hand? Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?

Stop and think about this for a minute. Sarah is pointing to a liturgical practice that arose in apostolic times and endured for centuries, was revived after Vatican II, was approved by popes and bishops, and is now widely practiced by the Catholic faithful around the world—and calling it diabolical.

Thus, in a single sweeping statement, Sarah manages to slander Christians of the first millennium who took Communion in the hand regularly for at least nine hundred years, and today’s faithful who do the same. These are not some off-the-cuff remarks, or a homiletic flight. They are his written words, published in a book, and presumably they represent his considered opinion. Sarah, the highest liturgical authority in the Vatican aside from the pope, has just suggested that most Catholics are in league with the devil.

How does one even begin to evaluate this?

First of all, sad to say, Sarah’s comments reveal either an appalling ignorance of or an indifference to liturgical history. Does he not know that this practice (standing and receiving in the hand) comes from the apostolic church? Does its venerable antiquity not commend the practice to him as holy, even though he prefers the more recent historical practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue?

After all, he is not just inveighing against thoughtlessness or sloppy parish practices today (which may well need improvement). By implication, he is disparaging the faith of many centuries of Christians. Consider the fathers of the church, who wrote extensively about the mystery of the Eucharist. Were Ambrose and Augustine and Chrysostom lacking in reverence or eucharistic faith? Or go back further, to apostolic times. Were the Apostles lacking in reverence for the Eucharist? There were people in the early church who held to their faith under persecution, and even gave their lives rather than profane or give up the Eucharist. Were they in league with the devil?

All these people received Communion in the hand. It seems to me not only absurd but grievously wrong to assume that someone who receives Communion on the tongue is a better Christian than they were, or understands reverence toward the eucharistic mystery better than they did.

I happened recently to come across a text by Philoxenus of Mabbug (ca. 440–523) that illustrates the depth of reverence brought to this ancient practice. It is a prayer to be said in a low voice, toward the host, when receiving Communion in the hand. Here is a bit of it: “I carry you, living God, who is incarnate in the bread, and I embrace you with my palms, Lord of the world whom no world has contained. You have circumscribed yourself in a fiery coal [an allusion to Isaiah 6:6-7] within a fleshly palm—you Lord, who with your palm measured out the dust of the earth. . .” It goes on and on, a brilliant mystagogy, expressing the utmost reverence. This is a West Syrian text, but the Latin fathers were likewise able to express a lively and powerful eucharistic faith. Sarah is wrong in thinking that Communion in the hand is some kind of demonic plot. It’s a holy and venerable practice.

He is a reform-of-the-reform partisan, who believes that things went badly wrong in the implementation of the Vatican II reform of the liturgy.

Second, Sarah’s remarks display a lamentable lack of pastoral sensitivity. Let’s consider the actual situation of Catholics today. In 1969, Pope Paul VI honored the practice of Communion on the tongue, saying it showed that the church had evolved these expressions out of reverence for the Eucharist. But we should not take Paul VI’s words out of context. At the same time that he affirmed Communion on the tongue, he also gave permission for Communion in the hand, and he extended the permission further as time went on. Both practices can be found in today’s church, side by side, and usually without friction.

Cardinal Sarah laments, “Why do we insist on communicating standing and in the hand?” But those who receive Communion standing and in the hand are not “insisting” on something. In most cases, they are receiving Communion in the way they have done it all their lives. The Eucharist, received in this way, has sustained their faith journey in good times and in bad, in suffering and in joy. Now Sarah comes along and judges them guilty of an unpardonable failure of piety. What a cruel and unnecessary affront to the person in the pew! What a pernicious viewpoint to endorse, one virtually guaranteed to stir up feelings of self-righteousness and contempt on one side, and resentment and bewilderment on the other. Where is Sarah’s pastoral sense? Even if one is totally persuaded that today’s church needs a revival of reverence for the Eucharist, this is not the way to do it.

One must reluctantly conclude that Sarah—despite holding a mainstream office—really does not speak for the mainstream of the church. He is a reform-of-the-reform partisan, who believes that things went badly wrong in the implementation of the Vatican II reform of the liturgy. If one evaluates his words according to the agenda of the reform-of-the-reform movement, they are dramatic in style but unsurprising in content. Indeed, the denigration of Communion in the hand is boilerplate. The supposed superiority of receiving Communion on the tongue, while kneeling, has long been a contention of traditionalists and of those who would rewrite the reform. Sarah is simply saying it once again, only this time couched in extreme rhetoric. If we frame it within this context, it all becomes clear. He is preaching to the choir of those who desire a style in keeping with traditionalist liturgical practices, and whipping them up in their fight against the ressourcement of Vatican II. He is playing to his base.

All this leaves us in a quandary, however. Why did Pope Francis appoint Sarah—not to a niche position, but to a mainstream post in a field about which he knows little? And why does he let him go on blundering in this way? Francis himself has never said why he appointed him, though informed sources say that Benedict wanted Sarah in the job and Francis went along. And we can only speculate as to Francis’s intentions for the future.

But we do know some things. Having corrected Sarah publicly, now more than once, Pope Francis surely understands that his prefect for divine worship is not in sync with his own priorities—and so does everyone else. Possibly he is simply waiting for Sarah’s term to expire and will then let him go, as he let go the unsatisfactory prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Perhaps Francis leaves Sarah in place because he thinks he is harmless, and is convincing nobody but the already-persuaded. Francis may want Sarah to keep his position so that the reform-of-the-reform movement, which Francis has rejected, cannot use Sarah as a martyr. Maybe he finds Sarah sympathetic in person, and his personal qualities seem more important than the things he says. Francis has always treated Sarah with kindness and respect.

I give Francis credit for this. But I don’t find the arguments for keeping him in office persuasive. Time and again, Sarah has detracted from the work of the congregation and caused confusion concerning Francis’s genuine priorities and intentions. His pronouncements, far from benign, promote distrust and resistance to the mainstream liturgical reform in practical ways. Every one of his talking points is taken from the reform-of-the-reform movement, even when he does not use the term (because he was told explicitly not to use it). This movement is clearly shaping his agenda.

Francis says that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council are “irreversible.”  He knows that there is a movement abroad to reverse them, and he has said no. At the same time, he keeps Sarah in power. As I see it, this has led to an incoherent situation. Francis cannot have it both ways. He cannot both support the reforms of the council, and have his prefect of the CDW rowing in the opposite direction.

Sarah’s term may not be expired, but with this latest diatribe, it’s clear that his time is up. The reason is simple. He’s not serving the church. He’s speaking for the preoccupations and priorities of one small portion of the church, and working against the interests of the majority. The curia is the pope’s cabinet. They are not appointed to pursue their own agenda, or to cater to a minority. They are charged with a diaconia of service to the churches around the world, on behalf of the Petrine ministry. Tell me how whipping up fury and fear concerning diabolical intentions in our Communion practices is a service. It isn’t. Francis should recognize that Sarah has failed the most basic test of service.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
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