A priest blesses the coffin of Australian Cardinal George Pell upon its arrival for a funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 14. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Remember for whom Cardinal Pell toiled

  • January 27, 2023

Catholic faithful have witnessed the death of two spiritual giants, Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, within a few short days of each other. The news of Cardinal Pell’s death hit me hard. I can claim no relationship with Pell. I shouldn’t feel the loss personally. But I do, nonetheless. 

There was a preparatory build-up to the death of Benedict XVI. On Dec. 28, Pope Francis asked the faithful to pray as Benedict was “very sick.” In the following days the Vatican Press Office released updates: Benedict had had a good night’s sleep and was able to participate in the celebration of Mass. We continued to pray and when the news came on Dec. 31 that he had died it was as if this very frail man of prayer, with transparent skin and barely audible voice, had simply slipped through the flimsy curtain that separates mortals from the heavenly hosts. 

There was no such preparation for the death of Cardinal Pell. His death was unexpected — these days hip operations are almost as routine as a trip to the dentist for a teeth-cleaning. Cardinal Pell was also neither so old nor so ethereal as Benedict. Though he was 81 when he died, he maintained both an imposing physical presence and an enjoyment of the physical world. His prison journals revealed a man who delighted in the thingness of things.

He wrote of how he looked forward to Sundays when his favourite dessert was served, “tinned fruit in jelly with cream.” He took an interest in the little bit of garden in the prison yard and offered to water the roses.  He was a fan of sport, unsurprising given his early career as a ruckman in Aussie rules football, and seemed to watch all the sports: rugby, football, cricket, tennis and horse-racing. He closely observed the natural world and remarked with pleasure the first time, after being moved from one prison facility to another, he saw the rain fall again, “One of the advantages of being at Barwon is that I can hear the rain and wind and thunder and see the rain falling in my own exercise pen.”

I have a Catholic friend in Australia who is also mourning the loss of Pell. He does so in an environment that remains vitriolic towards Pell — a full three years after the High Court unanimously and categorically quashed Pell’s conviction on sexual abuse charges. This friend shared with me articles published in Australia. In one, commentator Gerard Henderson wrote, “It appears the media pile-on against the late George Pell will continue past his death and burial.” Henderson goes on to note that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which took an anti-Pell stance back in 2006, and six Australian newspapers had only room and appetite to snipe as Pell’s death was announced. The BBC followed suit running the headline, “Cardinal Pell’s death brings few tears in Australia.”

Despite the police witch hunt, the egregious miscarriage of justice in the Victorian courts, the bile that continued to spill from the Australian media and even death threats, Cardinal Pell’s faith remained solid.

A few days after Pell left prison, he was interviewed by the journalist Andrew Bolt. Bolt repeatedly questioned Pell how he was able to cope with the loss of job, income and reputation. Bolt at times seemed more discomfited and anxious than Pell.  It is as if Bolt is asking himself how he would continue to stand under the weight of such pressure.

Pell responded, “For no Christian is any earthly tribunal the last tribunal. I know I won’t be able to fool my good God.” Pell turns the tables on Bolt and suggests that to him that our earthly reputation, no matter how sterling, will not matter in the end. The judgment of men will not matter. The only thing that will matter in the end is the final judgment, the judgment of our Lord.

In his journal, Pell makes mention of a poem of Australian poet, James McAuley, “In a Late Hour.” 

The opening lines read:

“Though all men should desert you
My faith shall not grow less,
But keep that single virtue
Of simple thankfulness.
Pursuit had closed around me,
Terrors had pressed me low;
You sought me, and you found me,
And I will not let you go.”

Rest in peace, Cardinal Pell.

(Farrow is a writer in Montreal.)

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