Friday, 16 December 2016 is 50 years since Cardinal Pell was ordained a priest, and if you will indulge me, I would like to offer a few personal thoughts to mark the occasion.
About nine years ago, I attended my first ever Theology on Tap. It had already been running for a bit, but I was drawn to the event because Cardinal George Pell was going to be speaking on the topic of God and Caesar. Apart from the one time he had visited my parish, I hadn’t heard the Cardinal speak before, and so I grabbed a few friends and went along.
I don’t remember much of what His Eminence said that night, but one part of his talk remains quite clear in my mind. He was speaking about the need for Catholics – and particularly Catholic women – to present the Catholic viewpoint in public, and said that it was important for us to be able to articulate the Church’s position in the public square.
“But,” he said, “you’re going to need to know what you’re talking about. Which means that after you get your first and second degree, that you should keep studying.”
He even had some tips on what we should be studying? “Make sure you learn something about economics,” he told us.
“People often try to dismiss the Catholic perspective because they think we don’t know our sums.”
At the time, I had two university degrees and had been working as a lawyer for a couple of years.
I thought: “I can do that,” and shortly thereafter enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Financial Services and then a Masters of Bioethics. (Warning: attendance at Theology on Tap can unexpectedly result in 5 years of additional studies).
A few months after completing my Masters, I was invited to volunteer for Catholic Talk, an initiative aimed at presenting the Catholic viewpoint in the public square.
I agreed, and after a few more months of that, I ended up taking the reins as its co-ordinator. It would not have happened if I had not heard Cardinal Pell’s talk that evening. It’s funny how God works.
Cardinal Pell has been dubbed “the most hated man in Australia,” and even if that (dis)honour is not accurate, he would certainly be a contender.
Even if every one of the numerous allegations made against him were true (and I have written numerous times previously about why I do not think they are), it would still not explain the level of vitriol which seems to accompany comments about him.
Indeed, Cardinal Pell is spoken of in harsher terms than people who have committed heinous crimes.
There are few people who do not have a strong opinion on the man, and of those who do, many of them speak of him with a disdain which is usually reserved for dictators and despots.
And on what basis?
I think the contempt with which Cardinal Pell is treated has less to do with his failures – perceived or actual – and more to do with his steadfast witness to the Catholic faith and objective truths in the public square.
Cardinal Pell is only a “lightning rod” because he has consistently and courageously spoken out for truth, life, family, freedom of religion and the dignity of the human person in the course of his ministry.
This is not about placing him on a pedestal, we all have our flaws and the Cardinal is no exception, but the amount of negative attention he receives, I think, is directly related to his willingness to step into the fray when it would be easier to duck for cover.
There is no doubt that Cardinal Pell’s life would have been easier if he remained silent on “controversial” issues, and chose to accept attempts to force Catholicism and any other religious expression out of the public square.
He would not be the subject of so much hatred if he had not spoken forcefully about same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other social issues, as well as being a driving force for orthodoxy within the Church.
Had the Cardinal instead preached a Jesus Who demands nothing of His followers, he would be living a much quieter life.
I often say that when I am 75 years old, I hope to be sitting on the couch eating icecream and watching my stories, not facing battles in two continents as he is now doing.
For this reason, I consider Cardinal Pell not only to be the impetus for my decision to venture into a field of work which involves offering the Catholic perspective in the public square, but also my role model in the same.
Every time I experience an inclination to give up, my mind turns to the Cardinal and his persistence in preaching the truth in the face of relentless criticism.
I am so grateful to him for his example, and if I can continue in my work with even a sliver of his commitment, then I will consider it an achievement.
Thank God for the 50 years of the Cardinal’s priestly ministry. I pray for many more.