There is a well-worn adage that you can tell a lot about a man by his friends and by his enemies. Popularly characterised as being a ‘polarising figure’, George Cardinal Pell certainly had won both the admiration of loyal friends and the loathing of the bitterest of enemies.
Pell was in some measure a victim of the infamous Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and in the ecclesiastical realm there were few poppies that came close to Pell’s heights. He was dux of his school and thereafter turned down an offer to play AFL for the Richmond Football Club so as to enter the seminary. He was sent to Rome for his seminary studies and later earned a PhD from Oxford University. Pell was appointed archbishop in succession to the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney, made a cardinal of the Church and the Vatican’s first-ever Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, making him effectively third in command to the Pope. There is no bishop in Australian history that approaches Pell’s international prominence and this fact alone earmarked him for public scrutiny. Add to this charge the unforgiveable crime of being an outspoken conservative, and (God forbid!) one who actually believed the teachings of the Catholic Church were true and you have a convenient punching bag for Australia’s liberal media upon which they could vent their outrage against the Catholic Church. Pell truly was their all-time favourite villain.
With any public figure of Pell’s profile, it will become nigh impossible to disentangle the real man from the cartoonish public caricature presented by the secular media, that of an insensitive, knuckle-dragging, ecclesiastical cave-troll. To those who actually knew Pell there is no correlation to the real man. Pell was a titan in every sense. His enormous frame made him physically imposing; and he was blessed with a proportionately robust intellect. He was articulate and scholarly, yet never snobbish or priggish. He was allergic to nonsense and would call a spade, a spade. Pell possessed a refinement of character and sparkling wit married to that quintessentially Australian irreverent sense of humour. Pell was a visionary who made long term investments for the future of the Church because he believed the Church has a long term future: rebuilding Corpus Christi Seminary (Carlton), founding Notre Dame University in Sydney, and the Australian pilgrim centre Domus Australia in Rome, to name a few. Pell loved his footy and cricket, and attended games whenever he could; yet he was also a significant patron of the arts and a friend to many artists. Pell was a well-published author and columnist, an internationally sought-after speaker and appeared regularly in high profile public debates, such as his debate with celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins. In spite of Pell’s enemies’ attempts to portray him as heartless and sociopathic the opposite was true. Pell was the most warm and magnanimous of hosts, as anyone who had the good fortune to receive his hospitality will testify, courteous to all and reluctant to speak ill of anyone, including his detractors.
In spite of these qualities, there are few (if any) public figures in modern Australian history who have been subjected to such a sustained barrage of reputational assault as George Pell. The leftist establishment media were permanently incensed that Pell was prepared to publicly and unapologetically defend the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, bioethics, anthropology and theology. Pell’s willingness to engage in the culture wars and to critique the ‘progressive’ secularists’ war on the Christian foundations of Western culture marked him out for public execution early on. As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell made headlines after denying Communion to gay-rights activists who were attempting to use the Mass as a political statement. In 1997 Pell made a legal challenge to the blasphemous (and publicly-funded) exhibition of Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ (a provocative photo of a crucifix immersed in urine) at the NGV. The injunction failed but the ire of the leftist establishment was raised against Pell for daring to defend Christianity in the public square. Pell had squarely kicked the progressive hornet’s nest and from this point the media anointed Pell as public enemy number one. The role played by the media (particularly the ABC and The Age) in the subsequent trial against Pell is hard to exaggerate (see Gerard Henderson’s The Cardinal Pell Media Pile-On and Collective Guilt (2021) or Keith Windschuttle’s The Persecution of George Pell (2020)). They had cultivated an image of Pell as a bully and a villain for well over twenty years. Their smear campaign was effective in thoroughly poisoning public opinion against Pell. The media had effectively established the guilty verdict in the minds of the public long before Pell had been accused of any crime. Following the High Court’s verdict to quash Pell’s conviction, the media’s absence of any remorse for the part they played in putting an innocent man in prison for 404 days, sheds light on the unrelenting bias of the secular media for whom the end always justifies the means.
No individual is perfect and no leader is beyond criticism, Pell being no exception. The fact that bishops are as flawed as the rest of us doesn’t mean we cannot honour their achievements or express gratitude for their lives of service. I am personally grateful to Cardinal Pell for his courage and strength of leadership in the Church in Australia, especially on doctrinal and moral matters. His attempts to reform a Church in crisis both locally and internationally has inspired an entire generation of Catholics in Australia and beyond. Pell could easily have avoided engaging in the battles that he fought for the honour of Christ and His teachings. As a Pastor of souls, Pell understood well his obligation to proclaim the truth in season and out of season, not simply telling people what they want to hear. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to Christianity I think Catholics will find themselves hungering for Church leadership that conveys those qualities of strength, courage and deep personal conviction.
There is perhaps one even more important example that Cardinal Pell left us: the grace of being able to endure suffering, humiliation and injustice with a serene sense of resignation and trust in the will of God. One priest who went to visit Pell in prison returned astonished since it was Pell who ended up comforting and encouraging the priest in his struggles rather than the other way around! That Pell could endure such an ignominious humiliation at such immense personal expense and emerge from prison without a trace of bitterness or desire for recriminations was something extraordinary to behold. This is a mark of genuine holiness and a potent sign of Pell’s conformity to Christ who was, likewise, falsely condemned and crucified by the mob. In 1Corinthians St Paul writes “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men… When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.” (1 Corinthians 4:9,12-13).
May the Good Lord who sees all, knows all and rewards all, grant Cardinal Pell his eternal reward. May he rest in peace.