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How George Pell built the world’s best Catholic chaplaincy

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Then-Archbishop George Pell with students and the author (back, second from right). Photo: USyd Chaplaincy
Then-Archbishop George Pell with students and the author (back, second from right). Photo: USyd Chaplaincy

By Dr Robert Haddad

It was near the end of lunchtime during an ordinary working day in August 2001 in St Charbel’s College, Punchbowl, when suddenly one of the school secretaries, Mary Arraj, poked her head out of her office window and shouted out to me across the playground, “Robert, there was a phone call for you. It’s Archbishop Pell.”

The archbishop wanted to speak with me at 5pm. My genuine fear was that someone had put forward my name as a candidate for a position in the archdiocese. Four hours later I called. “I want to offer you a job,” he said. My worst fears were now realised!

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A few days later I met Pell in his private residence of Cathedral House. He conveyed his recent discussions with Anthony McCarthy, then-president of the Catholic Society of St Peter at the University of Sydney, and how McCarthy impressed upon him the need to reform chaplaincy services on campus to better serve faithful Catholic students.

Pell was willing to act on these suggestions but he believed that McCarthy himself, then only in his early 20s, was too young himself to lead the renewal project. He had heard (probably from McCarthy himself) that I was a Catholic teacher in my late 30s and a rabid Cricket and Rugby League fan. Being a lover of sport himself Pell wanted someone who could connect with the university students in multiple ways, not just through theology and philosophy.

I began to think that it was a rather vague and unstructured job compared to teaching. Then to my surprise Pell said, “And I want apologetics to be part of it.” He must have also known that I had a keen interest in this field of theology and threw in this comment as an incentive for me to say yes to his offer. It worked.

After Pell completed his hard-sell I immediately accepted the job offer, excited and honoured to help establish this new project as convenor of the University of Sydney Catholic Chaplaincy. McCarthy was deputy convenor. Having been the recent president of the Catholic Society of St Peter and a student for the previous four years, he knew how student societies worked, and brought immense talent in event organisation and knowledge of Catholic artistic culture. We also had two part-time assistants, Louise Altham and Lucy O’Connell.

We formally began work on Monday 21 January 2002. We met at 9.00am on City Road in front of the old St Michael’s Chapel of the Resurrection. With some trepidation about the year ahead I said to Anthony, “If through this work we change only one life, it will all be worth it.”

We were determined to be revolutionaries, Catholic revolutionaries, bringing authentic Catholicism onto campus—Catholic teaching, Catholic theology, Catholic philosophy, Catholic activity, evangelisation and apologetics – and we were determined to sweep away what had been before, which to me was an anaemic, faithless and fruitless pseudo-Catholicism more interested in allying with and advancing the sexual revolution than Catholic teaching. No longer would authentic Catholics be marginalised or excluded. We were ready to begin.

Our office was in the “chaplaincy hut,” a small building on campus near the main sporting ovals, and we also had a room in St Michael’s College on the other side of campus, next to the Chapel of the Resurrection. The outgoing chaplain had agreed to a transfer to the nearby Sydney College of Technical and Further Education, in a polite meeting without any acrimony or controversy. There would be no such pleasantries, however, when I would later meet with the executive of the Catholic Society (Cathsoc).

One of my first actions was to clean out our room in the chaplaincy hut. By the end of day one, I had deposited 12 large garbage bags of books and other materials into the nearby compactor. Most of the books were authored by notorious dissenters and non-Catholics. We would build a new library, stocked with books faithful to official Magisterial teaching.

Soon after, it came to my attention that we would be sharing our room in the Chaplaincy hut with the Pentecostal Chaplain, a member of Hillsong. She was a pleasant enough person but such an arrangement was unsustainable. What we really needed were premises that would be a working base for all the staff as well as a centre that could receive students in large numbers—a refuge on or near campus where students could socialise, study, access technology, gather for Bible studies, eat, play pool, etc.

Then-Archbishop George Pell with students. Photo: USyd Chaplaincy
Then-Archbishop George Pell with students. Photo: USyd Chaplaincy

Our efforts seemed forlorn until McCarthy discovered a large empty floor above the Legion of Mary offices in nearby Broadway. Pell was impressed with our vision and came with his Financial Controller to directly negotiate a lease for $200 per week. He also refurbished them with office furniture, photocopier, lounges, computers, shelving, books and the compulsory pool table. Once established, the premises were officially named and blessed as the “John Paul II Student Resource Centre.”

We were now in a position to roll out our regular program for students, including twice-daily Mass and a free BBQ on campus every Monday. The weekly events, forums, BBQ and stalls on campus would prove to be very appealing to students. Between the two daily Masses, around 30-40 students would attend each day. I clearly remember how Pell when coming to say Mass for us would count the number of students in attendance and comment happily afterwards how many “new faces” he saw.

Our “major events” would be ground-breaking experiences for the new Catholic chaplaincy. The first “Life Week” was truly going “into the deep” as we were prepared to host events that related to highly controversial issues, including abortion, contraception, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. We would occasionally expose ourselves to verbal and physical attacks from radical Left elements on campus but were willing to embrace this, knowing we had moral support from Pell.

In subsequent years, Pell himself would appear on campus to address certain controversial topics and this would see protests being staged in opposition, necessitating the organising of campus security to protect him. These protests, however, never fazed him and he always remained willing to come on campus to speak.

The first “Mission Week” in October 2002 would be a larger scale than Life Week but less controversial. It was a determined effort to promote Catholicism and to win converts. In my initial interview with Pell in August 2001, he also mentioned that I should be “open to accepting converts.” I was very happy to do this and two conversions resulted from this first Mission Week—Kiran and Glen, the first a High Anglican and the second the son of a Baptist minister and executive member of the Evangelical Union on campus. A steady stream followed from future missions, re-named “Christweek.”

Vital to our success on campus would be the Chaplaincy’s relationship with the pre-existing Catholic student societies. We were allies with the Catholic Society of St Peter due to the orthodox orientation of its membership and had a convivial relationship with the Catholic Asian Students Society (CASS), whose head, Sr Teresa Chiu, had a good relationship with Pell.

The main concerns lay with the Catholic Society (Cathsoc). Its executive showed itself to be overtly hostile from the start, pointedly refusing to cooperate with me and formally removing me from executive membership. I decided to simply ignore them and proceed with our plans with or without their involvement.

The last I heard of them in 2002 was an effort to place various articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and Honi Soit (the University student paper) denouncing us as “Pellites” promoting a conservative agenda. In the years to follow, CathSoc would eventually dissolve due to declining membership and be replaced by the Catholic Society of St Peter (CSSP), which also took over its name, rebranding itself as a new, orthodox Cathsoc.

A more serious issue involved our relationship with the Catholic chaplaincies based in the other universities across the archdiocese, which met monthly without any representative from USyd. I was tipped off that McCarthy and myself were being deliberately kept in the dark and when I informed Pell, his response was instant and dramatic.

He immediately arose out of his chair and called to his private secretary to convene a meeting of all the university chaplains, wherein he made it clear that the new chaplains of the University of Sydney were now a permanent feature of the landscape. Everyone got the message loud and clear.

Then-Archbishop George Pell with students. Photo: USyd Chaplaincy

Authentic Catholic chaplaincy won other victories in 2002. One was the “takeover” of the International Movement of Catholic Students Australia (IMCSA) by orthodox Catholics, which became the Australian Catholic Students Association. Another was Pell’s intention to take Sydneysiders to WYD02 in Toronto. Until Pell, Australians travelling to WYDs did so only in private groups or as individuals. Now as Archbishop of Sydney, he led a group to Canada, including 42 students from USyd chaplaincy, which has sent large numbers to every WYD since without exception.

As the new USyd chaplaincy began to settle into a regular routine, we discussed the expansion of the new model. Pell was cautious and, on the occasion when I strongly urged him to move on replacing the chaplain at UNSW, responded, “You belong to the ‘War Party.’” No changes would be made to the other chaplaincies in 2002 but in due course Pell would move to replace the chaplains at UNSW, UTS and UMaq. By 2006, all four of the major chaplaincies in the archdiocese were led and staffed by orthodox Catholics and united under a Director of University Chaplaincies, based at USyd.

Though our premises in Broadway above the Legion of Mary offices were adequate for our first year of operations in 2002, we hoped for a central location on campus. There was an opportunity for this in and around St Michael’s College and the Chapel of the Resurrection on City Road, both owned by the archdiocese. Built in 1969 as the first purpose-built chapel to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass in Australia, the Chapel of the Resurrection was now in a dilapidated state, with the college in even worse condition.

Both were served by Fr Kevin Muldoon, an elderly and faithful priest of the archdiocese. He was very supportive of the new chaplaincy’s work and direction and he allowed us to use one of the rooms in the college for Bible study groups. He was also supportive of the idea of renovating the site, as was Pell.

However, transforming St Michael’s would involve a total demolition and reconstruction—a massive undertaking that involved the archdiocese in a property boundary dispute with the University of Sydney lasting many years. The time from initial concept to final opening of the new facility spanned 13 years. Only in 2015 would the new St John Paul II Student Centre be blessed and opened by Pell’s successor, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.

This centre is part of a massive student residential block sitting in the heart of the university. The facilities for the students include a magnificent chapel, study areas, meeting rooms, kitchen/dining area and work stations. Being owned by the Archdiocese of Sydney, it ensures a Catholic presence on campus in perpetuity, a great advantage in the age of “cancel-culture.” Without a doubt it amounts to the best Catholic chaplaincy-student facility anywhere in the world, all thanks to Pell.

Even more important than constructing new premises was Pell’s decision in 2004 to install a Dominican presence into the USyd chaplaincy team. This started with Fr Dominic Murphy OP in 2004, was further expanded by Pell in 2008 after the Sydney World Youth Day when two Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia (“Nashvilles”) were appointed to the USyd chaplaincy staff, and has led to 10 students joining the Dominicans (six Friars and four Sisters). In addition, 11 other male students who were active with one of the four renewed chaplaincies have joined the priesthood and three other women have joined other religious communities.

As the end of 2002 approached, my thoughts turned towards returning to St Charbel’s College. I knew I could not remain as convenor of the Chaplaincy beyond January 2003, yet a number of the students were hoping that I would remain. I negotiated a part-time role until mid-2004, before returning again as full-time Convenor from 2006-2008.

In the 20-plus years since the establishment of the new Chaplaincy, there have been multiple Convenors: Stephen Lawrence, Thomas Waugh, Daniel Hill, Tony Mattar and Natalie Ambrose. All these leaders have maintained the original spirit of the 2002 foundation. They have been faithfully supported by numerous other staff members in both USyd and the other three major secular campuses, notably Rita Azzi, who has been a student activist and chaplaincy staff member continuously since 1999.

The USyd Chaplaincy, CathSoc and the other university chaplaincies continue to go from strength to strength. I have the honour and privilege of still being part of their work through invitations to present on these campuses from time to time. Without a doubt, Pell’s reform of university chaplaincy at USyd and beyond ranks as one of his greatest and most fruitful achievements. Knowing now how many young lives have been changed for the better by this great endeavour, I can happily repeat those words I uttered to Anthony McCarthy that first day on 21 January 2002, “If through this work we change only one life, it will all be worth it.”

This is an edited version of an essay by Dr Robert Haddad from the latest edition of the the Australian Catholic Historical Society’s journal, available free online.

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