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Pope Francis accepts resignation of conservative African cardinal

Francis did not name an immediate successor, spurring speculation that the decision was not planned.

Cardinal Robert Sarah in 2015. Photo by François-Régis Salefran/Creative Commons

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis on Saturday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, which oversees worship and sacraments. Sarah was among the last outspoken conservative prelates named to a position of influence by Pope Benedict XVI. 

“I am in God’s hands. The only rock is Christ. We will meet again very soon in Rome and elsewhere,” the Guinean cardinal, the highest ranked African prelate, tweeted on Saturday.

 

Church rules require active bishops and cardinals to offer their resignations when they reach age 75, but it’s not uncommon for popes to extend their tenures if they are pleased with the officials’ work. 

It was also notable that Francis did not name an immediate successor for Sarah, spurring speculation that the decision was not planned.

Sarah, who worked closely with the pontiff, had taken positions viewed as out of sync with Francis’ vision for the church. The cardinal published a book in January of last year arguing for priestly celibacy just as Francis closed a summit of bishops on the Amazon region that considered allowing married clergy as a solution to the region’s chronic shortage of priests.

Sarah said at the time that Benedict had co-written the controversial book, fomenting rumors that the present pope and his retired predecessor had doctrinal disagreements. Later editions made clear that Benedict was only a contributor to the book.


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Francis also publicly scolded Sarah in 2017 for his insistence that his department should have the final say on the translation of liturgical texts. Francis argued that such matters should be in the hands of local bishops’ conferences.

Sarah was made a cardinal by now Emeritus Pope Benedict in 2010, and he was appointed president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, charged with caring for those in need and assisting the pope’s charitable projects. (The council has since been absorbed by the Vatican Department for Integral Human Development.) Sarah participated in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis, who appointed him to the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2013.

Sarah’s exit from the Vatican further shrinks the number of conservative prelates holding roles of influence in the Catholic city-state and recalls Francis’ decision, in July 2017, to accept the resignation of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller. 

Müller, who was Benedict’s choice to head the powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also held traditional Catholic views in favor of priestly celibacy and against female ordination. The German cardinal called his dismissal “unacceptable.”

Sarah was considered a possible candidate for the papacy by many Catholic conservatives who shared his traditionalist views on immigration, sexuality and marriage. While conservative opposition to Pope Francis is waning at the Vatican, a summit of bishops in Germany is outlining a controversial path that promises to adapt the Catholic Church to modern times and renew its position on homosexuality, priestly celibacy and the role of women in the church.


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