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Fr Josh Miechels: the Cardinal I knew really cared about people

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Cardinal George Pell in Rome in 2014. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan.

George Cardinal Pell was to Sydney and Australia what Saint John Paul II was to Rome and the world—and a hugely influential force for good in the English-speaking world.

His influence has usually been underestimated. Not because he had all these strings to pull in the Vatican, perhaps fewer than people think, especially in recent years. But because he really cared about people.

He really spent time and energy caring about people, and he was willing to bear some of the cost of that. Because he had a huge well of courage, and that won him enormous respect. And because he had a profound love of the Truth, and specifically a deep personal relationship with the Risen Jesus.

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My personal experience of him was of a man who was quick to recognise he was wrong when I pointed it out to him, much quicker then myself or others on occasion when he chimed in with a correction himself.

He was always interested in an argued point of view. Contrary to supposition he was more liberal than some of his priests, and less conservative than some of his fans, often calming them down with phrases like, “Don’t assume a conspiracy when a stuff up will do.” and “As long as it’s orthodox, I’ll support it.”

Much will be said of his legacy. Once, maybe five years ago, I asked him what he thought were the most important changes he had made in Sydney.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked.

“Well if we’re going with a top three, I’d say for third the invitation of UNDA to Sydney.”

“Hmmpf. Yes.”

“And then for number two, I’d say the reform of the seminary in Sydney.”

“Good. And then what would be your first one.”

“I reckon it’s the reform and support of the university chaplaincies.”

(Silence for about three seconds) “I think you’ve got that about right.”

It’s no accident that all three projects were concerned with the forthright proclamation of the gospel in an intellectually rigorous fashion, that all three were concerned with education, and that all three were centred around helping young people.

It’s no accident either that one of the bigger projects for which he is better known, World Youth Day 2008, the chasuble of which Pope Benedict was buried in last week, was of a similar nature.

Aside from the importance of daily prayer—“That’s always the first thing to go”—the Cardinal was a passionate believer in encouraging young people, rigorous debate, and proclaiming the Gospel.

One of my earliest memories of him was his visit to the University of Sydney Camperdown campus in late 2002. With the support of the chaplaincy staff me and my team organised the first Mission Week at the University.

It was, I think, on the Thursday that we had invited him to be the responder at a completely open Q+A. He had happily agreed to come and exchange with whoever so wished.

Along with a crowd of the Convinced as well as the Far-From-Convinced who attended in the Stephen Roberts Theatre, there were half a dozen students (one of the blokes was in my Sociology class) who came with their mouths initially taped up as a protest against the suppression of their freedom of speech and action by somebody.

Fair enough—except that the tape was off before even starting and they then proceeded to spend the whole hour trying to stop everybody else’s freedom of speech by continually interrupting questions, and answers, and chanting half-rational slogans.

It was the most appalling, irrational and dictatorial spectacle that I’ve ever seen at a public forum before or since. But the Cardinal (or mere Archbishop as he was then) just stood there in grey clerics and check jacket and took it, took their questions, responded very calmly and reasonably, and seemed pretty unruffled by the whole thing. That was George Pell.

The last time I saw him in Sydney a few months ago I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with him talking about a range of things – a conversation marked by his unflagging and typical wit, sharp analysis and twinkly sense of humour.

On the way to and from the restaurant we had to cross Hyde Park. It was very, very slow going because of the state of his health. But what I remember most about that day was, despite not carrying a massive “I Am George Pell” placard, the number of people, of all different backgrounds, coming up to him saying “Hello Father”, “Thankyou Father”, “Good on you Father”, “Best wishes Father.”

And I remember thinking I was glad that, despite everything, ordinary people who don’t know him personally from a bar of soap found that he and his work was important, that they found reason to be grateful for it, and that they wished him well in the future.

May he rest in peace, with the Lord and coming judge and saviour Jesus Christ, who, despite his personal limits and weaknesses, he gave it his best to serve, with courage, honesty, cheer and confidence.

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