Obituary – His Eminence George Cardinal Pell
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His Eminence George Cardinal Pell
8 June 1941 – 10 January 2023
Bailiff Grand Cross of Honour and Devotion
Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta
A Pontifical Requiem Mass for Cardinal George Pell will be held at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Thursday 2 February at 11am AEDT and will be livestreamed
The Church has lost a remarkable voice with the passing of George Cardinal Pell this week in Rome, a city which he loved and to which Providence drew him back again and again. He had been born during the Second World War in the rural Australian town of Ballarat. His mother was a committed Catholic, but his father was and remained a nonpracticing Anglican. Perhaps no less significantly, he was also a publican and the young George’s experience of assisting on occasion in the pub contributed to his later social ease at dealing with people of all backgrounds. As a young man, he combined the qualities of a fine athlete with those of a sincere scholar and for a while there was a serious prospect of him playing Australian rules football professionally for the Richmond football club in Victoria. Instead, of course, it was the priesthood, which captured his heart, and his qualities were early recognized by the Bishop of Ballarat, Sir Jimmy O’Collins. Bishop O’Collins had himself been the episcopal protege of the legendary Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne and he in turn became the patron of the talented and remarkable son of a publican whom he made sure to send to Rome as soon as possible to complete his seminary studies. Bishop O’Collins, a rustic orator of a type no longer to be found, was no fool when it came to treading the corridors of power. So it was that before too long, the young Mr. Pell found himself one day in the private office of Pope Paul VI. At the end of their interview, the Pope reached across the desk and picked up a small, statue of his own patron saint, John the Baptist. (Gian Battista Montini) and gave it to Pell. Such a scenario was no more common in the 1960s than it would be today.
In 1966 he was ordained to the priesthood in St Peter’s Basilica by Cardinal Agagianian and soon afterwards was sent to Oxford, where he completed a doctorate in church history and made lifelong friends who warmed to his open and confident nature. He made the most of his time in England and developed a deep love of the country, reveling in particular in the distinction of being the first Catholic chaplain at Eton since the reformation.
In 1971, he returned to Australia and served briefly in rural parishes before being appointed director of the Aquinas Institute for teacher training in Ballarat. A great breakthrough occurred in 1985, when he was appointed director of the provincial seminary of Corpus Christi in Melbourne. It was a troubled place and he found it in grave need of reform. He joked afterwards, “in my day, we had night prayers and lights out. Now we have light prayers and nights out.” He set to work quickly, trying to restore discipline and rigour to the life of the seminarians, but his efforts were interrupted after two years when he was appointed an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne under Archbishop Sir Frank Little. It was well known that relations between the two men were somewhat strained, and Archbishop Little did not overburden his auxiliary with too many duties. These were the days when Pope John Paul II, still, vigourous, and energetic, was calling for a sincere revival of traditional Catholic faith and practice. Bishop Pell threw himself wholeheartedly into the effort and became a focus of hope for many troubled Australian Catholics and something of a standard bearer for the movement. Unfortunately, in the process, he also became a target of those who were more committed to the new winds of change, which had been blowing through the Church with mixed results for over two decades. Bishop Pell was blunt and direct and enjoyed the limelight, but he was also articulate and knew how to defend himself in a hostile situation. There were to be many of these as the years passed.
It was during these years as an auxiliary, that his first dealings with the area of child sexual assault occurred. He had been asked by lawyers to accompany Fr. Gerard Ridsdale to court, and to give a sort of character reference. In fact, it turned out that Ridsdale’s crimes were far more grave than Pell had been told and the television footage of the two of them heading into the court became a millstone around his neck for the rest of his life. He was painted as a defender and associate of the paedophile, and despite his protestations, those images, relentlessly replayed by the Australian media, fixed in many people’s minds an image of the Bishop very far from the reality.
His vigour in defence of the faith had brought him to the notice of Pope John Paul II, and in 1997, he was to succeed to the see of Melbourne upon the retirement of Archbishop Little. He had had plenty of time to develop his plans are and hit the ground running, not least by the well-publicized reform of the seminary, which induced most of the seminary staff to resign en masse. He was not overly distressed by the result. The clergy of Melbourne, deeply divided along ideological lines for the most part, did not welcome him, and were somewhat relieved when he was translated to the historically more important and traditionally cardinalatial see of Sydney only four years later. There the clergy were easier to deal with, but he was soon defending himself against a claim of sexual assault, ultimately investigated by an independent judge and found unproven.
Archbishop Pell was subsequently made a cardinal by John Paul II in 2003 and spent the next few years following the same pattern he had established in Melbourne. The university chaplaincies and the seminary were reformed, and the number of vocations increased markedly. In 2008 under his direction Sydney hosted the World Youth Day gathering to rave reviews even from the hostile Australian press.
In 2014 many were surprised when the newly elected Pope Francis summoned Pell to Rome to head a new department of the Vatican, to be known as the Secretariat for the Economy. There had been widespread agreement on the need to reform the Vatican’s finances, and it seemed that the bluntly spoken and formidable Australian Cardinal was the man for the job. He made early headway, but soon ran into entrenched opposition. Some resented his manner, and it was true that at times his directness and assertive behaviour did not respect the conventions of the Vatican. Others had darker reasons for resisting him.
In the midst of his efforts came the devastating blow in 2017 of his prosecution by the Victorian State Police for historic child sexual assault. Those who knew him recognized the accusations as implausible to the point of absurdity, but many others were prepared to believe the worst of an unpopular conservative, particularly the representative of a discredited and humiliated Church whose failings in this area had been exhaustively reported.
His conviction in 2019 was a terrible blow and almost undermined his trust in Australian justice while the dismissal of his first appeal left him discouraged but determined to vindicate himself. The subsequent unanimous overturning of the perverse judgment by the full High Court of Australia divided Australia. By then he had served 404 days in prison, most of them in solitary confinement.
Those who knew him found him a changed man after the terrible experience of imprisonment. The old character was still there, warm, gregarious and social, but softened and spiritualized. He was devoid of any degree of self-pity or of hostility towards his accusers. He claimed that the experience had drawn him closer to God and it seemed the heavy humiliation had allowed qualities of tenderness and gentleness to come much more to the fore than had been apparent earlier. He spent the last couple of years for the most part in Rome, welcoming old and new friends and keeping well informed on the many issues of the day. His untimely death after a minor surgery has come as a shock to his many friends who hoped he might have had longer to enjoy his retirement. He died aged 81.
Obituary by Rev. Anthony Robbie
Conventual Chaplain Ad Honorem
Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta
Private Secretary to George Cardinal Pell 2016 – 2020