Cardinal Sarah: In facing liturgical East, we experience “the primacy of God and of adoration”

In a recent interview with a French publication, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, explains how God can be put "back at the center" of the liturgy.

The most recent edition (June 3) of the French publication Famille Chrétienne has a lengthy interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, part of which is available online (in French only). While touching on several topics, the focus of the interview is liturgy and worship. As usual, Cardinal Sarah is both eloquent and direct, qualities that will be familiar to those who have read God or Nothing (Ignatius Press, 2015), the Cardinal’s autobiographical interview with French journalist Nicholas Diat. 

Asked how we, as Catholics, can put God “back at the center” of the liturgy, Cardinal Sarah emphasizes that the liturgy “is the door to our union with God. If Eucharistic celebrations turn into human self-celebrations, there is a great danger, because God disappears. We have to start by placing God back at the center of the liturgy. If the man is the center, the church becomes a merely human society, a simple NGO, as Pope Francis said.” 

What is the remedy? Cardinal Sarah first emphasizes the necessity of “a true conversion of the heart.” He then states: “Vatican II insisted on a major point: in this area, the important thing is not what we do, but what God does. No human work will ever be able to accomplish what is found at the heart of the Mass: the sacrifice of the cross.” The liturgy, the Prefect notes, “allows us to go outside the walls of this world. Rediscovering the sacredness and beauty of the liturgy therefore requires a work of formation for the laity, the priests and the bishops. I am talking about an interior conversion.” As he has done before, notably in a detailed reflection published earlier this year, Cardinal Sarah emphasizes the importance of silence: “In order to put God back at the center of the liturgy, silence is necessary too: the ability to be quiet so as to listen to God and his word. I maintain that we only meet God in silence and by pondering his word in the depths of our heart.”

This insistence on conversion—which is “to turn toward God”—and contemplative silence leads to the recognition “that our bodies must participate in this conversion.” And the best way to realize this bodily participation is by facing liturgical East (ad orientem) in worship:

The best way is certainly to celebrate with the priests and the faithful all turned in the same direction: towards the Lord who comes. It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the faithful or facing them, as you sometimes hear. That is not where the problem lies. It is about turning together towards the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned. By this way of celebrating, we will experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We will understand that the liturgy is first of all our participation in the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have experienced it personally; by celebrating in this way, the assembly, headed by the priest, is as though drawn in by the mystery of the Cross at the moment of the elevation.

Cardinal Sarah is asked if this way of celebrating is allowed. Yes, he responds, it is indeed “lawful and in keeping with the letter and the spirit of the Council.” He notes that in a June 2015 article that he wrote for L’Osservatore Romano, “I proposed that the priests and the faithful turn toward the East at least during the Penitential Rite, during the singing of the Gloria, the Prayers of the Faithful and the Eucharistic Prayer.” 

Naturally, Cardinal Sarah is asked about Vatican II and the “change in orientation of the altar”. He makes a point that has been made countless times but still seems to go unheard by many Catholics: “More than fifty years after the close of Vatican II, it becomes urgent for us to read its documents! The Council never required celebrating Mass facing the people! This question was not even addressed by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium…” 

In reading God or Nothing last fall, I was repeatedly struck by Cardinal Sarah’s clear and penetrating insight into the nature and place of worship. Not surprisingly, this developed early in his life, as he recounts: 

When I was an altar boy, I observed very attentively the sensitivity and fervor with which the priests in my village celebrated their daily Masses. In this sense, it is not wrong to say that from a young age I was able to understand the need to offer spiritual worship that was holy and pleasing to God. At Mass we are present first and foremost to God. If we do not turn our attention radically toward God, our faith becomes lukewarm, distracted, and uncertain. At Ourous, as an altar boy, I gradually learned to enter into the eucharistic mystery and to understand that the Mass was a unique moment in the life of the priests and of the faithful. divine worship lifted us out of the ordinary. Seeing things with the eyes of a child, I had the feeling that the priest was literally absorbed by Christ at the moment when, facing East, he lifted the consecrated host toward heaven. (p 50)

It was during that time, he says, that he “realized that the liturgy was the most precious sacred moment in which the Church allows us to encounter God in a unique way. We must never forget to unite the liturgy with the tragic event of the death of Jesus on the Cross.” Later, in reflecting on the massive and confusing liturgical changes that followed the Council, Cardinal Sarah told Diat:

Before all else, in the Church, there is adoration; and therefore God. This beginning, says Benedict XVI, corresponds to the first and chief concern of the rule of Saint Benedict: “Nihil operi dei praeponatur” (Nothing should be preferred to the work of God). Now, if there is one reality too often left out of consideration, it is certainly the consubstantial relation between the liturgy and God. The foundation of the liturgy must remain the search for God. We can only be dismayed by the fact that this intention of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and of the Council Fathers as well, is often obscured and, worse yet, betrayed….

And, finally, in a very pointed section, he explains how a loss of proper focus and purpose in the liturgy can lead to grotesque offenses that damage individual lives and the life of the Church:

Unfortunately, right after the Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was understood, not in terms of the fundamental primacy of adoration, of the Church humbly kneeling before the greatness of God, but rather as a book of formulas…. We have seen all sorts of “creative” liturgical planners who sought to find tricks to make the liturgy attractive, more communicative, by involving more and more people, but all the while forgetting that the liturgy is made for God. If you make God the Great Absent one, then all sorts of downward spirals are possible, from the most trivial to the most contemptible.

Benedict XVI often recalled that the liturgy is not supposed to be a work of personal creativity. If we make the liturgy for ourselves, it moves away from the divine; it becomes a ridiculous, vulgar, boring theatrical game. We end up with liturgies that resemble variety shows, an amusing Sunday party at which to relax together after a week of work and cares of all sorts. Once that happens, the faithful go back home, after the celebration of the Eucharist, without having encountered God personally or having heard him in the inmost depths of their heart. What is missing is this silent, contemplative, face-to-face meeting with God that transforms us and restores our energies, which allows us to reveal him to a world that is increasingly indifferent to spiritual questions.

I’ve referred to Cardinal Sarah as “Africa’s Ratzinger”, in part because his understanding of the liturgy is so much in keeping with the principles and priorities found in Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (and other writings) and in Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The emphasis on facing liturgical East, for instance, is something seen in Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Fr. U. M. Lang’s book Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (Ignatius Press), first published not long before Ratzinger was elected at the 2005 papal conclave. 

[Translation from the French by Michael J. Miller, who also translated God or Nothing.]

Related on the CWR site: “Silence in the Liturgy” (Feb 10, 2016) by Cardinal Robert Sarah

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.