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Remembering Cardinal George Pell’s great vision

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Cardinal George Pell died on 10 January 2023 aged 81. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan
Cardinal George Pell died on 10 January 2023 aged 81. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan

As we go through life, we sometimes meet people who we consider to be ‘larger than life’, such is the impression that they make on us.

I always found Cardinal George Pell to be such a person, and like many I struggle with the reality of his death in Rome from a heart attack and absence since 10 January last year.

I was and am consoled however by many wonderful memories and an appreciation of the great legacy that he has left.

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Our last catch-up was for dinner at a bustling streetside pizzeria in Belfield on the Feast of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop in 2022. It was only a few days before he would leave for Rome for the final time.

Our few hours together epitomised so many of our ‘get-togethers’ of the preceding years. The conversation was diverse and free flowing. Passionate, and robust at times.

We shared a range of views, especially in regard to sport, politics and current affairs. Unsurprisingly, he was impossible to outflank on any of the topics.

Much of what we spoke about was of mutual interest and concern, especially our vision for forming future generations of Catholic leaders.

To this end, we both acknowledged the critical role of the seminaries and the Catholic chaplaincies and the need for vibrant approaches to youth ministry. Not coincidentally, the cardinal had prioritised these in his time as Sydney’s archbishop.

He implored me to continue to use my role to actively promote vocations to married and religious life and the priesthood.

Before long however, our conversation shifted to Catholic education and more specifically, religious education.

The cardinal’s mind was sharp and enquiring. He was acutely aware of the challenges facing schools and teachers of religious education, and he remained abreast of initiatives involving both student and teacher formation.

He was especially interested in the ongoing development of the religious education curriculum and the To Know, Worship and Love textbooks.

These were not distant or abstract observations. Rather, they were insightful and well informed, carefully honed by years of ‘hands on’ experience.

As always, Cardinal Pell was brimming with ideas. The ‘octogenarian’ was not short on energy. He spoke excitedly of chapters that he would contribute to the revised ‘KWL’ textbooks, and of his involvement in the ACU school leavers program in Italy and England.

As was always the case, he was very happy to put his own shoulder to the wheel.

Cardinal Pell with Year 12 students on the 2022 Australian Catholic University school leaders immersion program. Photo: Supplied

I had the great privilege of knowing and working with Cardinal Pell for many years. During this time, I got to see and experience first-hand the grandness of his vision for the Church. He was an ‘ideas’ man, and they were invariably lofty and inspiring ideas. Sydney’s hosting of World Youth Day attests to this.

But the grand vision was also finely balanced with pastoral and practical considerations. It was ‘big picture’ thinking with an eye for detail, conveyed with a clarity of thought. And to be successful of course, it required a steely determination.

This determination was especially necessary when engaging with and challenging the bureaucratisation of church agencies and Catholic education systems and institutions, and when undertaking significant projects.

I can think of no better example than Cardinal Pell’s reform of religious education, which I experienced both as a system director and classroom teacher.

Central to their mission, Catholic schools actively contribute to the evangelising and catechising mission of the Church. They are places where the seminal truths of a Catholic worldview are celebrated and shared.

The cardinal recognised the centrality of religious education to achieving this and he oversaw the envisioning and implementation of a new RE curriculum in the Archdiocese of Sydney, just as he done in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

The curriculum represented a significant shift from what was previously taught. Notwithstanding this, it has been very well received by both teachers and students alike.

The curriculum prioritises students’ coming to know, understand and celebrate the Catholic faith. It nurtures critical thinking and moral reasoning and makes explicit the connections between faith and life.

The curriculum is robust in nature, and the cardinal never apologised for this. He believed that students would find it stimulating and come to appreciate the relevance and importance of religion to their own lives. He was right.

He was right too about textbooks. Intuitively, he understood that both teachers and students saw value in them as a learning resource. As a result, he championed the publication of the To Know, Worship and Love series, which has a ‘recognitio’ from the Vatican, and has sold internationally. Well written and beautifully illustrated, they alone are an encounter with what is good, true and beautiful.

It is not uncommon to think about the last time that you spend with another person. My final catch-up with Cardinal Pell remains clearly etched in my mind.

He was focused and sharp and spoke passionately about his hopes for the Church and our own country. He was undistracted by the din of the crowded pizzeria and was both gracious and personable to the diverse and seemingly endless stream of well-wishers. Our table had been placed between one of heavily tattooed gym junkies and that of elderly churchgoers from the parish.

Both to me and the well-wishers, he was ‘larger than life’. And despite his many great achievements and an enduring legacy, he remained a man with a ‘common touch’.

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