Cardinal Sarah and The Prisoner

Catholics of traditional bent were elated when they learned that Robert Cardinal Sarah was the celebrant of the culminating Mass of this year’s Pentecost Chartres Pilgrimage. If they listened to his homily on You Tube or read the English translation of it on the website of New Liturgical Movement, they thrilled that the religion was preached without the talk morphing into a Marxism-lite lecture on “human rights” and “social justice.”

As it happens, I spoke the other day with a priest who was recently at a Vatican meeting Cardinal Sarah was not scheduled to attend but where he showed up anyway. The meeting had begun and discussion was underway when His Eminence came into the room and took a seat. I’ll quote the priest: “The level of the discussion was elevated by his mere presence.” That’s the kind of man he is.

A liturgical matter was the subject under discussion and the Cardinal listened for some time without saying anything. When he did speak it was to pronounce a profound truth, one whose very pronouncement underscored most of what has been wrong liturgically ever since the “reforms” instituted fifty years ago by Churchmen intent on making Mass, as they put it, “relevant”.

“The liturgy is for God,” Cardinal Sarah said. “It is not for us.”

There are Catholics who imagine a Church with Cardinal Sarah in Peter’s shoes if they become vacant while he is still able to don them. They even wish it. We should be careful what we wish for. Nothing could excite the animosity of enemies of the Faith more than his being raised to the papacy. Don’t think that in our politically-correct world the color of his skin would immunize him from criticism. On the contrary, important liberal media (which is to say, the important media, period) would probably be filled with commentary on how he betrays his African heritage with Eurocentrism. Then there are the women. They’d hate him because of his adamantine defense of the sacredness of human life against their “right to choose.” That would make him “sexist.” The homosexuals would be hysterical because he would never ask in regard to them, or anything else, “Who am I to judge?” In nations like Germany and the U.K., where you can be put in jail for saying anything about Islam except that it is an inherently peaceful religion, he might be burned in effigy for holding that jihadists and Western liberalism are the two greatest threats facing the world today. In short, we would go from the rock-star popular Francis to probably the most unpopular, vilified pope in modern times.

As I reflect on this probability, whatever its likelihood, there comes to mind a film I watched recently for the first time in many years. I didn’t see it when it was made and released in 1957, but later when I learned that the actor who played the lead, Sir Alec Guinness, became a Catholic after his work in the film. Having watched it again the other week, I keep replaying it in my head.

It is The Prisoner. If for no other reason, it is worth watching by anyone who appreciates stellar acting, especially old-school, pre-Method acting. The other main character, besides Guinness’s, is played by Jack Hawkins. All the characters are nameless. Guinness is the Cardinal, Hawkins the Interrogator, and so on. Neither is the country in which we see them named, but it is obviously behind the Iron Curtain. It could be Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Cardinal modeled on Wyszynski, Mindszenty or Stepinac.

The Cardinal is not simply the leading Church figure in the country, he is a national hero on account of the role he played in the Resistance during the World War II German occupation. The Interrogator was also a Resistance leader. The two men have that in common but the Cardinal’s mother was a fishmonger, the Interrogator is from an old noble family.

The film begins with the Cardinal being arrested one Sunday after Mass. The regime’s leaders fear opposition forces could coalesce around him. They want to discredit him by putting him on trial and showing he is guilty of treason. The thing is, he mustn’t appear tortured, drugged or in any other way impaired. He must confess his “crimes” freely. This is where the Interrogator comes in. He is a secret police psychologist and his mission is to extract the desired voluntary confession from him.

Early in the film we hear the Interrogator tell a subordinate, “Everyone has a weakness. I’ll find his.” He does. We’ll come to it in a moment. First, the picture’s key speech, the one that ought to resonate with every Christian today even if he doesn’t live under Communism, is when the Interrogator says to the Cardinal: “Think of me as your doctor. To me you’re in my consulting room on the couch. You are an enemy of society like the schizophrenic or paranoiac because you mislead the poor, the uneducated, the silly, but only because you’re wrong-headed. In time we’ll get to the root of the problem and you can be cured.”

Isn’t a version of that message received every day by every Catholic still clinging to the undiluted Faith when he goes online, turns on TV news, attends a college lecture or bothers to listen to a typical political campaign speech? It is everywhere in the air he breathes: “The main thing is that we are all the same and therefore must love and respect everybody despite apparent differences. The illegal immigrant, the young man driven by poverty and racism to become a thug, the poor woman who can’t afford another baby, the person whose heart belongs to somebody of the same sex – we all want peace, love, justice, equality. You are free to believe whatever religion you want in your personal life even if it’s irrational. Just don’t try to impose your personal beliefs on others.”

As for the Cardinal’s weakness, I’m not spoiling the film for you, should you watch it, by revealing what it is. As the Interrogator explains it to his subordinate: “He was too humble. He believed it when I told him he was proud.” In short, the Cardinal’s “weakness” is his humility. He fears he can’t be humble enough for God. (We have heard him acknowledge to the Interrogator that when he chose to become a priest instead of seeking a career in the secular world, “I wanted to justify myself to me, not God.”) All the Interrogator has to do is show him he can be. How? By going into court and confessing his “crimes” to his countrymen. So he does. He states that he betrayed the Resistance, that he was really a secret informant for the occupier. We see the dismay of his countrymen as he speaks. Some weep.

Having got what they wanted from him, the regime releases the Cardinal from prison. At the end of the film we see a crowd of a few hundred gathered at the prison gate. The Cardinal comes out. No one jeers or tries to hit him or spits on him. The crowd simply parts and lets him pass through. In the film’s last frames we see him rejected, despised, alone. He might as well be Jesus on the way to Golgotha.

The Interrogator watches from a window of the prison and understands. He has submitted his resignation from the secret police because he sees the Cardinal was not defeated by him when he confessed his “crimes.” In truth, victory was his. He overcame self. Now the Interrogator fingers the handgun he has in his pocket. His choice is clear: the muzzle of his pistol or the foot of the Cross.

The last thing the Church needs today, or ever, is leaders loved by the world – by Catholics striving to live according to the will of God, yes, but not by the world.