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Priests remember generous father figure

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Australia’s most senior bishop supported and encouraged a whole generation of young clergy

Over the last week, a number of young Australian priests have shared their memories in homilies, conversations and articles of having known Cardinal George Pell and benefited from his fatherly concern for them and their vocations. Here are a few who shared their memories of the cardinal with The Catholic Weekly:

Throughout the 19 years I knew the Cardinal, I was fortunate to have a number of one-to-one conversations with him and to have enjoyed his company over dinner both privately and with eclectic groups of people. In every instance, he had the gentlemanly ability to make everyone and anyone feel comfortable in his presence and he would always take a genuine interest and concern in you.

His genuine care and concern for others was something regularly commented upon when I was in the seminary. Although he would visit the seminary twice a year to meet with each of his students, he was always willing to speak to us whenever we needed.

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Fr Greg Morgan embraces Cardinal Pell at his own ordination to the priesthood.

In my third year, I wanted to see him as I was struggling with certain things in the seminary. I rang his secretary, Josie, and, as expected, she told me that a meeting was going to be a few weeks away as the Cardinal was very busy. But she said she would get back to me to confirm. A few minutes later, Josie rang me back to say that the Cardinal would see me at 4pm that day.

I remember the meeting well. After listening to me lament for close to an hour, he simply said to me, “Greg, I have one issue to raise with you. I am your Bishop. My job is to look after you. So, I am a bit disappointed you did not come and talk to me sooner. You can come and see me any time you like. I hope you know that now?” My experience was far from unique.

The Cardinal knew me from when I was a cheeky little boy in Year 5 at St Mary’s Cathedral School and when I joined the cathedral choir. When I was preparing for my ordination along with three other fellows, I expected him to come to my first Mass the day after the ordination but when the time got closer he very delicately said to me that he wouldn’t attend my first Mass.

While I was naturally a little disappointed, I really respected his decision and understood that it was because he wanted to be considerate and fair to each of us and would not be able to attend all three.

Roberto Keryakos, second from left, with Cardinal Pell

I was privileged to see him twice in jail, and I just felt like I was paying a visit to a grandfather figure.

Both times he was quiet, he never complained about being there and he didn’t seem ill at ease, he was dressed in his prison greens but he was just himself.
He just wanted to ask us how things were and what was happening in the parishes and in the seminary, and what we thought about things. The second time I went down was with Father Ronnie Maree and Father Joe Murphy who were newly ordained priests at the time.
And seeing them give the cardinal their first blessing was so beautiful.

He was incredibly generous and very fatherly towards the seminarians and it was obvious he only wanted to build us up. I’ll never forget how good he was to me even though I was from a different diocese. He helped me after I was mugged while on World Youth Day and lost all the money I’d brought with me. The first time I was ever Master of Ceremonies at a Mass it was one being celebrated by Cardinal Pell.

I was so nervous and when I told him that he was surprised at first and then just said, “Oh I’ve done it a few times, I’ll show you what to do”. He never liked fuss or being overly praised, he just wanted to get on with the job.

I first met Cardinal Pell when I was a student at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, and he visited the school. Shaking his hand, I remember thinking “this guy is the tallest man I have ever seen” and it was later on that I understood how truly colossal of a figure he was.

Archbishop Pell and choristers. A young Roberto Keryakos is seen at far left of the choristers.

One of the defining features of the younger generation of clergy is that we have mostly all grown up in a minority. We have only known low practising rates of the faith and we were usually in the minority amongst our friends who lived their Catholic faith, sometimes even our family. In this context, the Cardinal’s continual courage to be outspoken for Christ and the Church was hugely influential.

Making himself vulnerable, over and over again, to the disagreement, ridicule and hatred that any authentic preacher of the Gospel experiences certainly shaped my desire to follow him in preaching Christ simply, directly and with no shame.

Fr Ronnie Maree and Cardinal Pell are pictured in Rome

The Cardinal showed a deep interest in the day-to-day realities of parish ministry. He was always keen to hear about the successes and difficulties I was facing in parish ministry and be ready to give advice which often drew from the wide view of his experience that any young, fresh priest didn’t have access to himself. He would often share resources he came across that he thought we would find useful and certainly did not hold back in challenging me if he thought I was going down the wrong path or taking the wrong approach.

For me, the last couple of years in the seminary were marked by the presence of the Cardinal living with us. Witnessing daily his serenity, kindness and of course never weakening sharp sense of humour as he carried that cross is an experience that I will draw on for whatever challenges lay ahead.

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