NOT long after we said goodbye to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died at 95 in his papal retirement home at Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican gardens on Dec. 31, 2022, we also lost George Cardinal Pell, one of the larger pillars (physically and intellectually) of the Roman Catholic Church, on Jan. 10, 2023 at the Salvator Mundi International Hospital in Rome. He was 81, and died of cardiac arrest after undergoing a successful hip replacement surgery.
On January 14, Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, and dozens of cardinals and bishops concelebrated the requiem Mass in his honor at the apse of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. These included Italian Cardinals Domenico Calcagnio and Giovanni Angelou Becciu, who did not always share Cardinal Pell's position on the Vatican financial reforms; Czechoslovakia-born Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., whose doctoral dissertation on Feuerbach, Marx and Religion the scholar Pell reportedly found disappointing; Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the retired vicar of Rome; the American cardinals Raymond Burke, James Harvey and Edwin O'Brien; the Nigerian nonagenarian Francis Arinze; and the only non-episcopal concelebrant, Pell's priest-secretary Fr. Joseph Hamilton.
The Mass was attended by arguably the largest congregation that ever attended a cardinal's requiem Mass at St. Peter's. Pell was eulogized by his colleagues for his greatness of intellect and heart, his outstanding service to the Catholic Church and the heroic example he had set in bearing pain and suffering with utmost dignity and inner peace.
I first met Cardinal Pell during a consistory in Rome after my wife and I began attending the World Meeting of Families organized by Pope St. John Paul II. The Australian cardinal's reputation preceded him as an unwavering champion of human dignity, the family and human life. Because of his sheer size (he stood 190 centimeters tall), he stood out in any gathering of cardinals and bishops, and he always looked gentle and kind. He was a scholar of great depth, with a doctorate from Oxford University, capable of taking on the most challenging intellectual assignment.
In Australia, aside from serving as archbishop, he wrote columns and books, delivered brilliant lectures and served once as a delegate to the Australian constitutional convention. At the Vatican, he served as a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers to the Pope from 2013 to 2019; and as inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, tasked with fixing the Vatican finances, from 2014 to 2018. He was not without his critics and opponents, but he defended his position with zeal and skill while respecting that of others.
In his Jan. 16, 2023 article (Letters from Rome) in First Things, America's "most influential Journal of Religion and Public Life," founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Pope St. John Paul II's biographer and the cardinal's good friend, recalls Pell's many superb qualities. I adopt Weigel's words here as my own:
"Virtually single-handedly, Pell stanched the doctrinal and disciplinary bleeding in Australian Catholicism that would likely have led that local Church to become a less-well-funded simulacrum of the apostate Catholicism on display in Germany.
"He was the driving force behind the revision [and vast improvement] of the prayers of the Roman Rite, which are now more accurate, more elegant and more faithful to the Latin originals.
"He played a significant role in the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI and then brought that pope (with whom he had worked when Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008: an event that had a percussive effect Down Under not unlike what happened to Catholicism in the United States after World Youth Day 1993 — which is to say, it transformed the New Evangelization from a slogan into an ecclesial grand strategy with real, on-the-ground pastoral effects.
"He was the most visible opponent of dictatorship of woke relativism in Australian public life, a vigorous opponent of what John Paul II dubbed the 'Culture of Death,' and its embrace of abortion and euthanasia, an intelligent critic of 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, and the scourge of prophets of catastrophic, anthropocentric climate change like Bill McKibben.
"He played a central role in challenging the way the staff of the Synod of Bishops tried to rig the 2004 meeting of that body — and then tried again at the Synod of 2015.
"He inspired a generation of priests and bishops to be the good shepherds they were ordained to be, armoring their flocks against the toxicity of modern culture, and challenging all the baptized to be agents of building a cultural life through the power of the gospel.
"He spoke truth to media power and scorned the brutal calumnies to which he was subjected by most of the Aussie press, including the government-funded Australia Broadcasting Corp. And on the rare occasions when he was afforded the opportunity to make his own arguments, he gave as good as he got, with force but also good humor his often-frothing adversaries singularly lacked."
As archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, Pell became one of the first to adopt an anti-sexual child abuse protocol called "Melbourne Response." It was the first protocol of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, in 1997, Pell was accused of abusing two male choristers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in east Melbourne. The whole allegation seemed utterly unreal and implausible, but on March 13, 2019, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment. He appealed his conviction and never lost the support of friends who never doubted his innocence. On April 10, 2020, I wrote a piece, "The vindication of Cardinal George Pell."
This is how Weigel saw it:
"He faced down the vicious, malfeasant manipulation of the criminal justice system in the Australian state of Victoria, which cost him 404 days in prison in solitary confinement before he was triumphantly acquitted of implausible charges of 'historic sexual abuse' by the High Court of Australia (which essentially said, of the trial jury that convicted him and majority of the appellate panel that upheld the conviction, that they had acted irrationally). In winning his case, and despite enormous suffering, George Pell helped save what remains of the rule of law in the country he cherished — and left behind three volumes of prison diaries that have become something of a contemporary spiritual classic, giving solace to people all over the world."
He certainly did more than that. He called his years in prison "a gift and a grace," and showed the world a follower of Christ embracing human suffering in full imitation of Christ.
In remembering Cardinal Pell, my mind goes back to the 2006 World Meeting of Families in Valencia, Spain when while waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to appear, the cardinal's wicker chair gave way to his weight, and the press had a great time punning the incident: "Cardinal Pell fell!" It was certainly an amusing moment, and the cardinal was the most amused. This is my most human recollection of him.
But there is yet another, far more endearing and enduring image I have of this lovable prelate. As Weigel himself narrates it, once he invited 30 homeless people to morning tea in his archiepiscopal residence, and once a month he would go out into the streets to eat with the homeless without bringing a camera crew to record the event. Amid the pomp and pageantry of his high office, His Eminence George Pell remained ever a poor and simple shepherd, deeply in love with the smell and company of his sheep.