In one of my last conversations with Cardinal Pell we talked about Margit Balogh’s biography of Cardinal Mindszenty, titled Victim of History. Balogh chose as the opening epigraph Mindszenty’s statement: “I shall keep on fighting…until the coffin closes above me”. When I mentioned this to Cardinal Pell his eyes lit up and he smiled. He clearly empathized with the great Hungarian confessor of the faith.
So often conversations with Cardinal Pell would end with his exhortations to “keep punching” or “keep up your guard” or other boxing metaphors that registered little to me but the consolation that he thought I was at least capable of fighting.
In his youth he had been selected to play A grade football but he turned down the offer and entered a seminary instead. Later in life his friends would joke that his leadership style was that of a football coach. In his “ecclesiology” faithful Catholics everywhere were members of his football team and exhorted to keep fit and to play fair. In his mind there were definite “teams”, goodies and baddies, but in conversations he would never allow ad hominem or otherwise uncharitable statements to be made against those playing on an alternative team. He once corrected a friend for referring to a new age nun as ‘feral’.
In theological terms one could say that he had a strong sense of the fact that each person is born into a cosmic battle. Each has a choice to make, for or against Christ. The fact that we live in a post-Christian age that is rapidly becoming expressly anti-Christian in many ways intensifies the dramatic thrust of human existence. A choice for Christ can easily lead to persecution and white martyrdom, as Pell personally experienced. He was such a champion of the choice for Christ he became a lightning rod for anti-Christian sentiment and ultimately its ideal choice for a scapegoat.
By academic training he was an historian. He held a D.Phil in Church History from Oxford. He was interested in both “meta-history” in Christopher Dawson’s sense, as well as in the historical fine details. He seemed to be a practitioner of what academics call the Cleopatra’s nose approach to history – the idea that random factors like the shape of a woman’s nose can alter the course of history. This approach makes personal free will the dynamic of human history, not abstract materialist forces.
Conversations with George Pell were like an Oxbridge tutorial. He would begin by asking questions like “what have you been reading” or “what are you writing” and then he would talk about what he had been reading. His coffee table was always stacked high with current affairs magazines. He somehow managed to keep abreast of numerous different social worlds. He gathered an enormous amount of intelligence by simply having friends in different countries and in different professions.
He came to prominence in the Church in Australia during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. While some despised John Paul II for his uncompromisingly Christocentric stance on moral theology it was precisely this clarity of teaching, and its unabashed Christocentrism, that impressed the young Bishop Pell. When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released in 1992 and Veritatis splendor in 1993 and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Pell strongly promoted each of these documents, notwithstanding the fact that there was considerable clerical opposition to each of them. He thereby became the champion of Catholics who wanted clarity in Church teaching and a reading of Vatican II according to what Cardinal Ratzinger described as a hermeneutic of reform (not a hermeneutic of rupture). By loyally defending St. John Paul II and his Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, Pell became a hero of faithful Catholics across Australia, not only in his home state of Victoria. At the same time he became the ready target of criticism in liberal theological circles.
In 1996 he was made the Archbishop of Melbourne. People often ask ‘where were you when you heard the news of the appointment? I was in Cambridge. I arrived home on my bicycle to find my husband performing star jumps in our garden and waving his hands in the air like some kind of air traffic controller. As I got closer he shouted “George Pell is the Archbishop of Melbourne”. We put on a disc that included Mozart’s Laudate Dominum and multiple versions of the Te Deum and somehow we cobbled together enough British pounds for a bottle of champagne. The next Sunday we met up with other Australians at the Brompton Oratory and there was another celebration at the Polish Club. I can remember Joanna Bogle congratulating the little huddle of happy Australians and proposing Westminster as Pell’s next appointment.
The following Summer the Linacre Bioethics Centre held a conference in Cambridge and Archbishop Pell rounded up about a dozen young Australian scholars and brought them with him to the conference. Archbishop Conti from Glasgow joked that he had come from Scotland with an entourage of two, while, judging from the number of Australian accents in the auditorium, it would seem that Archbishop Pell had filled an entire Qantas jumbo with his team. Conti also walked along the breakfast queue listening for Australian accents and when he found an Australian he would ask the student for his or her best “Pell story”. He thereby acquired loads of comical stories for his introduction to Archbishop Pell’s lecture. Pell later told me that he thought we had all been a tad indiscreet.
We however were proud to have him as our leader and enjoyed sharing our stories about him. Quite simply he had the gift of making people want to play on his team. He knew how to lead. He could foster comradery and get people working together. He was fun and mischievous and young people responded to that.
A typical Pell story recently doing the rounds was occasioned by the Pachamama affair. During the Amazonian Synod several statues of a pagan fertility goddess known as “Pachamama” appeared on altars inside a church near St. Peter’s Basilica. Although the church is a stone’s throw from the Vatican no priest, bishop or cardinal seemed to know what to do about it. This was a scandal in itself. No matter how fractured the Church’s moral teaching may be almost everyone can agree that doing homage to wooden idols violates the first commandment. Moreover, these objects were not even aesthetically pleasing. They looked like black witches with engorged sagging breasts and a swollen belly. Finally a young layman took direct action. He walked into the church, removed the pagan idols and dumped them into the Tiber. The story is that when this young Catholic (Alexander Tschugguel) was introduced to Cardinal Pell some time later as the pagan idol dumper, the Cardinal looked at him sternly and said words to the effect that he had done the wrong thing. After a comic pause of a couple of seconds the Cardinal changed his expression to a smile and said you should have burnt the things before you dumped them! Young Catholics loved these kinds of mischievous comments. He could be fun and paternal at the same time and he was a spiritual father to many.
In 2001 he was transferred from Melbourne to the Archdiocese of Sydney and a red hat followed in 2003. At a public dinner he described the difference between Melbourne and Sydney as the difference between women who wear cashmere cardigans and those who wear hot-pants. Melbourne is the more European of the two cities, more intellectual and more ‘old money’. Sydney is more of a commercial powerhouse and more new money. Sydney is regarded as the Primatial See in Australia, hence the transfer (back then) before the red hat.
It is said that in 2005 he was the campaign manager for the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. He loved John Paul II and saw Ratzinger as John Paul II’s wingman and thus the man best equipped to carry on the legacy of the Wojtyłian papacy.
In 2008 he welcomed Pope Benedict to Sydney for World Youth Day and half a million Catholics from around the world descended on Australia, notwithstanding the fears of many parents that they would be bitten by an assortment of wild animals not found in the cathedral cities of Europe. Poor Pope Benedict was not merely invited to pet a koala, which are at least cuddly, but to pat one of the pythons that normally live in the Australian rainforests. The pythons are sleepy animals and non-venomous but still a bit confronting to someone more accustomed to cute and furry alpine creatures. I don’t know whose idea the python was but I do know that the experience was seared into Pope’s Benedict’s memory of his trip to Australia.
In 2014 Pope Francis gave Cardinal Pell what is arguably the most difficult job in the Church. He was charged with cleaning up the financial corruption within the Curia. No doubt whole books will be written about his efforts in this space and the counter efforts of corrupt clerics and their friends in the Italian mafia. I once ran into Cardinal Pell at Santa Marta and he said, “my job today is to try and find out what happened to a missing 20 million Euro”! At least part of the answer to that question now seems to be that it went to keeping some femme fatale in luxury handbags and holidays! His sparring partners in the Curia called him ‘the kangaroo’.
At the Synods on the Family (2014-15) he defended the moral theology of St. John Paul II against moves to promote the very ideas which Veritatis splendor targeted. This battle for and against the moral teaching of the magisterium of John Paul II is far from over. When the history of this battle is written no historian will ever be in any doubt as to which side Pell was on. He believed in moral absolutes and in the indissolubility of sacramental marriage. His knowledge of history was such that he was acutely aware of the price that the Catholic martyrs in England and Scotland paid for their defence of this principle. He wasn’t about to exonerate Henry VIII or cheapen the blood of the English martyrs. He also believed in the authority of scripture and would not accept the fashionable idea that we can ignore whatever the Scriptures say that Christ said, because ‘no one had a tape-recorder in the first century’. In recent times Pell constantly referred to the concept of the “apostolic tradition” and argued that no bishop, pope or theologian, indeed no person of any kind, has the authority to teach anything to the faithful that is contrary to the apostolic tradition. To think otherwise is to reduce the Church to a political club.
When in 2018 he was imprisoned unjustly, the left-liberal establishment in the Australian media and in the organs of government in the state of Victoria (otherwise known as the People’s Socialist Republic of Victoria under the leadership of “Chairman Dan”) was jubilant. They had their arch-enemy in a prison cell. Many faithful Catholics responded by increasing the number of holy hours and fasts and rosaries and prayer vigils held for their “captain”. Such vigils were held not only held in Australia, but in London as well. Priests all over the world were offering Masses for him. Most of the Australian bishops were silent, perhaps fearful that if they said a word in his defense, they might be the next martyr. The lay “hobbits” however kept up the prayers and hundreds of letters of support arrived each day at his prison. Fr Frank Brennan SJ, a son of an Australian High Court judge and trained lawyer, wrote articles in the Cardinal’s defense. He had sat in on the trial and thought there had been a grave miscarriage of justice. Fr Brennan is not known for his support of many of the theological positions championed by Cardinal Pell, but he is a very competent lawyer, and while he may not be on board with all for which the cardinal stood, he was quite sure that the cardinal was not a child molester. When the matter finally reached the Australian High Court all seven judges were of the view that no reasonable jury could have convicted Cardinal Pell and he was released from prison.
The Cardinal and I were joint Patrons of the Australian Catholic Students Association. It is for me a matter of pride that all through the 405 days of the Cardinal’s imprisonment the students insisted on keeping the Cardinal’s name in a position of honor on their webpage, and as soon as he was free they invited him to speak at their next conference.
The Cardinal had a special affection for students. He clearly enjoyed the idealism and enthusiasm of their youth. One of his top concerns in recent years has been the situation of the faithful Catholics in China and the pro-democracy students in Hong Kong. The Vatican’s secret agreement with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party is regarded by many as a shameful betrayal of the Chinese Catholics and especially of their martyrs. Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, a man with the courage of five lions, has said of the agreement that it has ‘herded the Chinese faithful into a Communist cage’. With the death of Cardinal Pell, the Chinese Catholics have lost one of their strongest advocates on the stage of the world but they still have Cardinal Zen and the friends of both cardinals throughout the world.
No doubt Cardinal Pell is now enjoying the fellowship of other hero cardinals like Mindszenty, Sapieha, Wyszyński, Stepanic, Slypij, Todea and Kung, that is other men who kept on fighting until the coffin finally closed above them. It’s an elite club and one that many would not wish to join because the cost of admission is years of personal persecution. For these men the pallium with its crosses, and the Cardinal’s color of blood red, were no empty symbols.
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