Every once in a decade or so, a book comes into our lives that could seem to be inspired of God, that puts forth an urgent plea to the reader, something that reads like a letter to a spouse contemplating a separation or divorce. “Wait”, the grieving spouse pleads, “I want to open my heart to you. Please listen; don’t leave me.”
Cardinal Robert Sarah calls “The Day Is Now Far Spent” his most important book yet. He analyzes the spiritual, moral, and political collapse of the Western world and concludes that “the decadence of our time has all the faces of mortal peril.”
A cultural identity crisis, he writes, is at the root of the problems facing Western societies. “The West no longer knows who it is, because it no longer knows and does not want to know who made it, who established it, as it was and as it is. Many countries today ignore their own history. This self-suffocation naturally leads to a decadence that opens the path to new, barbaric civilizations.”
Cardinal Sarah was born in Guinea, West Africa. Made an archbishop by Pope St. John Paul II and a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, he was named the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014. While making clear the gravity of the present situation, the cardinal shows a clear path away from the twin evils of compromising capitulation or isolation — there is hope for this world. He calls for a renewal of devotion to Christ through prayer, adoration before the Eucharist, and rekindling the practice of virtue. His is not the way of recklessness or invective; his respect and love for the faith, the Holy Father, his fellow priests, and the entire church is obvious. These are homilies given as through a mist of tears. These are prophetic messages demanding repentence, yet delivered with the tenderness of an old father yearning for the long-anticipated return of his prodigal son, eager to forgive, cleanse, restore, and anoint.
Cardinal Sarah observes that the primary responsibility for the collapse of faith in the West “must be assumed by the priests.” He points to decades when confessionals were empty, liturgy desacralized and intentionally infantilized, and doctrine was not taught in Catholic universities and seminaries. He writes not with reckless anger, but as a prophet, not foretelling an end but forth-telling the realities of our global church, laying out the case against the church’s leaders who have failed to serve as shepherds. Slowly building his case like a highly-skilled prosecuting attorney, the cardinal stands before we members of the jury in both grief and conviction, and he explains both cause and solution.
“Clearly, there is a strong majority of priests who remain faithful to their mission of teaching, sanctification and government. But there is also a small number that yields to the morbid and villainous temptation to align the Church with the values of today’s Western societies,” Cardinal Sarah states. We the members of this jury know much about both evil and good these days, and we agree with this prophet. The corruption, the wickedness, the scandal borne from the abject sinfulness of a few — and the heartbreak, sadness, and discouragement felt by countless thousands of clergy whose hands and hearts are pure. We know this Catholic prophet speaks as speaking the very words of God (I Peter 4:11).
He brings the worldly church and its modernist leaders to the dock to bear witness.
“They want above all to say that the Church is open, welcoming, attentive, modern. But the Church is not made to listen, she is made to teach: she is Mater and magistra, mother and educator,” he thunders. Like the two discouraged and frightened disciples in Luke’s Gospel who fled Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus, we are urged to follow the path not away from the Church, but back toward its Jerusalem. “The day is now far spent;” Cardinal Sarah can no longer remain silent, and so he answers the cries from Catholics worldwide, and delivers a verdict that is both truth and hope.
Cardinal Sarah has written in deep distress, deeper humility, but with a powerful overcoming faith about the crisis in the Catholic Church. Given that the book’s release coincided with the opening of the Amazon Synod in Rome earlier this month, his is a plea for purity, for theological soundness, for mercy and grace — with love and reverence to his fellow clergy, his Pope, and the faithful around the world. Would that his words be read by every synodal participant.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed as a Catholic — not as one united with the faithful in pitched battle with enemies at the Gates of Rome but confronting wickedness and corruption marbled within the fabric of her own vestments, an evil within — and be tempted to flee for safety. Cardinal Sarah urges us to not be a prey to evil, saying “Today, if you are alone, there are many sharks that will devour your faith, your Christian values, your hope. Jesus created a community of twelve apostles and when it was necessary to send them on mission, he sent them two by two. From now on, to defend our belief, to be solid, we must support each other in faith, walk as a united community around Christ.”
Every Catholic should read this worthy counterpoint to the anger and hopelessness engulfing the church, and like the two Emmaus disciples who had wandered from their crucified Lord, we can hear again the sweet, Eucharistic words of Jesus, and return even at this hour when “the day is now far spent” to our Jerusalem, Catholic Rome.