Ultraconservative Cardinal Robert Sarah has claimed in an interview on the occasion of his fifty years of priesthood that he has never once opposed Pope Francis.

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“I’m calm because I’m loyal to the pope”, Sarah, the Guinean-born Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in the Vatican said in an interview with Rome Reports.

“They cannot quote a word, a phrase, a gesture with which I oppose the pope. It is ridiculous, it is ridiculous. I am at the service of the Church, the Holy Father and God. This is enough”, Sarah insisted.

“There people write this kind of stuff to create opposition, against the Holy Father, between bishops or cardinals. It is ridiculous. We must not fall into this trap. We must continue to teach. I don’t care what they say”.

Novena examines the cardinal’s claim, and recalls six incidents in which Sarah did oppose Pope Francis.

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1. Foot-washing for women and girls

In December 2014 the Pope wrote a letter to Sarah asking him to officially open the Maundy Thursday foot-washing rite to women and girls.

Francis had set an example and washed the feet of two young female inmates himself at a Maundy Thursday service in Casal del Marmo prison in Rome in his first Easter as Pope in 2013.

But the gesture caused controversy among ultraconservative Catholics, since Jesus at the Last Supper only washed the feet of his twelve male disciples.

Sarah eventually complied with the Pope’s 2014 request… but more than a year later.

The cardinal later tried to walk back the permission, saying that every bishop or priest “has to decide in accord with his own conscience” whether to include women and girls in the foot-washing rite, “according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast”.

2. Latin Mass

In July 2016, Cardinal Sarah advocated a return to the pre-1960s practice of priests saying Mass in Latin and facing away from the people.

“It is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction – eastwards, or at least towards the apse – to the Lord who comes”, said Sarah.

The cardinal also claimed Pope Francis had asked him study “the question of a reform of a reform” to see how the Latin and vernacular Masses could enrich each other.

But then-Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi immediately put the lie to both of Sarah’s claims, saying that the very phrase the “reform of the reform” is “at times the source of misunderstandings”.

Lombardi clarified that, in contrast to what Sarah had implied, the Vatican was planning “no new liturgical directives”.

3. Liturgical translations

In October 2017, Sarah claimed a new law that had just been issued by Pope Francis didn’t change the authority of his Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to impose changes on bishops’ conferences’ translations of liturgical texts not sufficiently faithful to Latin originals.

Sarah’s claim prompted Pope Francis to issue a stinging rebuke of the cardinal.

“The process of translating relevant liturgical texts into a language … must not bring a spirit of ‘imposition’ over the episcopal conferences with a translation handed down from the Dicastery, as that would betray the right of bishops as set forth in canon law”, wrote the Pope in response to Sarah.

Francis ordered the cardinal that his clarificatory remarks be published in those places in which Sarah had made his erroneous claims.

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4. Communion in the hand

In February 2018, Sarah raged against the practice of receiving communion standing and in the hand, calling it “a lack of submission to the signs of God” and part of a “most insidious diabolical attack… trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist”.

Receiving communion in the hand was the Church’s practice for the first thousand years of its history.

The practice was revived in the 1960s after the liberalising reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Just a month after Sarah’s attack, Pope Francis said it was part of established “ecclesial practice” that people receive Communion standing and in the hand.

“The faithful approach the Eucharist normally in the form of a procession and receive Communion standing or on the knees, as determined by the Episcopal Conference, receiving the Sacrament in the mouth or, where allowed, in the hand, as preferred”, Francis said in a Wednesday audience.

5. Mass migration

In April this year, Sarah argued that mass migration is a “new form of slavery” and said defending migrants is a “false exegesis” of the Gospels.

“It is better to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to a Europe in full decadence”, the cardinal said in an interview with the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

Sarah also took the opportunity to warn against Europe’s low birth rate, saying that the continent ran the risk of disappearing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision”, affirmed the cardinal.

But Pope Francis has been an tireless defender of the dignity of migrants and has repeatedly backed dialogue with Islam “to understand the common roots and differences of our religious identities”.

6. Causes of sex abuse

In May this year, Sarah came out in defence of Benedict XVI’s notes on the sex abuse crisis, saying that the Pope Emeritus had correctly identified the cause of the Church’s pedophilia plague as “the absence of God”.

Benedict’s analysis of the crisis was widely criticised.

Not only that, but Pope Francis attributed the scandal not to “the absence of God” but to the excessive use of clerical power and authority.


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.