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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: The courage of Cardinal Pell

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP leads prayers at Cardinal George Pell’s tomb after a memorial Mass on 10 January. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP leads prayers at Cardinal George Pell’s tomb after a memorial Mass on 10 January. Photo: Patrick J Lee

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 10 January 2024.

Years ago, I was in a lift in Goold House, then the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s chancery building, when I overheard some officials discussing the translation of George Pell to Sydney. One remarked that his motto had been “Be not afraid” and wondered what his successor’s watchword would be. From the back of the lift I whispered, “Be very afraid!”

The motto came, of course, from Christ, and was quoted by St John Paul the Great at his election.  “Be not afraid,” Jesus tells His disciples repeatedly.  “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.” (Jn 14:1,27) With the Lord as my light and help, our Psalmist sang, whom shall I fear? (Ps 26:10) And as Paul said in our epistle, we should have the confidence of heirs, not the anxiety of slaves (Rom 8:14-23).

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George Pell was unafraid. In the inaugural Acton Lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies he argued that the Church’s task today is to teach and demonstrate that “true freedom requires truth and is the fruit of consistently striving for what is good.”  Yet, as he knew very well, there are competing accounts of truth and goodness. There are many options open to us, some good, some less so, some plain evil. To know and care which is which and choose well between them requires an unwavering commitment to truth and consistent willing of the good. And these were marks of the man George Pell.

In postmodernity it’s pick your own poison when it comes to the good. But the Cardinal was no relativist. Only a limited number of genuine goods constitute human flourishing and explain our rational choices: life and health, truth and beauty, friendship and family, work and leisure, integrity and religion.  Each is self-evidently valuable, a divine perfection and a human need. We all seek them all, but most of us specialise in one or two for much of our lives. Doctors focus on life and health; teachers on knowledge; artists on beauty; and so on.

In sporting parlance, those rare players who master every position on the field are called ‘unicorns’. Cardinal Pell was such a unicorn in the arena of faith and morals. He had the imagination, focus and energy to attend to all the goods of human flourishing, more or less all the time.

He was, for instance, unafraid in his pursuit and proclamation of the truth. Wholly convinced that flourishing required cultivation of intellect, he studied and read widely, accumulating a large library of books with his scribbles in them. He was a passionate advocate of Catholic educational institutions.  He promoted sound catechesis, good teaching and fair funding for schools. He helped found or lead several tertiary institutions.

He also dedicated himself to the goods of life and health. He valiantly taught that all life is worth protecting, especially the most vulnerable. He wrote, preached and lectured on the dignity of all people, fought for Catholic healthcare institutions, and offered grants for ethical medical research. He established ministries for those suffering psychological afflictions and addictions, for the indigenous, ex-prisoners and the poor.

But it wasn’t all cerebral. After the Cardinal’s conviction, Pope emeritus Benedict asked me how his friend was faring and gave me a message for when next I visited him in prison. He recalled that, at the end of World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008, I had said that Cardinal Pell was a big man with a big heart, big enough to love the young people of the world and brave enough to embrace something like World Youth Day. Benedict assured me that this big heart would carry George through his travails. Both men had cultivated their heart as well as their heads, especially through music and the arts. He was a regular at concerts and promoted the cathedral choir. When he built the Australian pilgrim house in Rome and the retreat centre at Gross Vale, he commissioned for them an array of art.

“Perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). George Pell was deeply loyal to his family and friends, had a great gift for friendship, and promoted that great good especially as lived out in marriage. He was under no illusions regarding the assaults on this institution in secular modernity.  So, he founded Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, and Life, Marriage and Family offices for Melbourne and Sydney.

He was also unafraid to establish Catholic business networks in Melbourne and Sydney, to back Catholic professional associations, and to support the John Paul II Foundation for Sport. He also helped those who lacked work or leisure, and regularly advocated for them.

Finally, Dr Pell had the courage to promote morality and religion by word and example. In bemoaning the declines in sexual ethics and reverence for human life, in exposing the downsides of secularisation, relativism and wokery, and in resisting the reduction of conscience to strong opinion, he won many friends and not a few enemies. He served his religion faithfully as a parish pastor, bishop and archbishop. He reformed seminaries and built evangelising, tertiary and youth ministries. Sydney’s World Youth Day 2008, the biggest festival in the history of our nation, was his most daring project. But in keeping the rudder of the Church in Australia fixed upon the apostolic tradition, he did more than anyone to save it from becoming the sort of confused and dying institution that has been the Church’s fate in some places. We have much to thank him for, as will those who follow after us.

In 2003 he was created Cardinal and, because his titular church was Sta Maria Mazzarello, he was known as “the big cheese” in some circles. At one time or another he served on most of the Vatican dicasteries, and from 2013 as inaugural Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a Member of the Pope’s inner Council. Recently Pope Francis recalled “the zeal, conviction, determination and vision” of “our much-mourned brother” George. He said the Cardinal had understood better than most what was needed regarding Vatican financial reforms. No Australian has done more for the Church international.

Following a media, political and police witch-hunt, Cardinal Pell was tried and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Even after being unanimously exonerated by the High Court, he continued to be demonised by some; some even sought to disrupt his funeral. Though he deeply regretted the anguish his “misadventures” caused his family and friends, George insisted on Christian forgiveness and perspective. He knew, as Paul put it in our epistle today, “that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory awaiting us” (Rom 8:14-23). If we suffer in good spirit with Christ, we will share in His victory. So, he was not embittered by his troubles, as many would be; if anything, he emerged gentler and more forgiving. This man of courage proved to be a great encourager to others.

When the young George Pell was deciding his vocation, many possibilities lay before him: intellectual, footballer, leader.

Faith and reason taught him that to flourish human beings need life and health, truth and beauty, friendship and family, work and leisure, morality and religion. It is to serve all these dimensions of human happiness and participations in the divine that the Church exists, and to which George decided to lend his considerable gifts as a unicorn playing for every human good.

A few decades before, Thérèse of Lisieux found it terribly hard to choose between vocations, saying she wanted them all! “I feel within me the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr,” she wrote. “I feel the need and desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus.”  No-one ever called George “the little flower”. But like Thérèse he was a person of deep prayer who chose to serve God in multiple ways and every dimension of the human person. He was a soldier for Christ in the ‘culture wars’, a priest of sacred mysteries, an apostle of Church governance, a doctor of Catholic teaching, a martyr of the corrupted Victorian legal system. Some have compared his prison journal to Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul. And like her, he was unafraid to carry out the most heroic deeds for Christ. Our Gospel tells us that the just Judge, supreme over every civil court, will assess those deeds (Jn 5:24-29): we pray He rewards them with eternal life.

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