11 January 2023

'A Christian disciple': Cardinal George Pell on Pope Benedict XVI


Cardinal George Pell
19 June 1941 - 10 January 2023

I woke up around 3:30 this morning and before going back to sleep I checked the news on my phone. I was shocked to read of the death in Rome just a few hours earlier of Cardinal George Pell. Beside me on the bed was the third and last volume of his Prison Journal, which has been my night time reading recently.


Though I never met Cardinal Pell, I had come to know him through his prison writings. One thing he mentioned frequently was his hope that he would be released having been found innocent of charges of the abuse of two altar-servers for which he had been jailed, not only for his own sake as an innocent man but more for the sake of the Church.


I came to know a man who in his daily diary could be reflecting on the readings in the Office of Readings in the Breviary, the praying of which each day sustained him, and then going on to comment on a cricket match or an Australian Rules football match, which he could watch on TV. He frequently quoted extracts from letters he received from all over the world, letters which gave him hope and courage. He mentioned a letter from a 'carpenter and historian' in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic where I have spent short periods as a priest in 2000, 2017 and 2019. I think that that is a person who regularly reads Sunday Reflections on this blog.


The Cardinal mentioned the Columbans a number of times and wrote about his friend Fr Robert McCulloch, a Columban in Rome who was a good friend of his.

Among Cardinal Pell's regular correspondents were some other prisoners whom he was never able to meet. He tried to answer their letters. In other words, he was ministering to these, just as St Paul ministered to the early Christians while he was a prisoner, and as two Columbans, Fr Brian Gore, an Australian, and the late Fr Niall O'Brien from Ireland, ministered to their fellow prisoners in Bacolod City nearly 40 years ago. They were part of the Negros Nine, three priests and six lay leaders falsely charged with murder in the Philippines. Like Cardinal Pell they were eventually acquitted.

In his Prison Journal Cardinal Pell comes across as a prayerful man of solid faith with a quiet, manly piety. He speaks well of his fellow prisoners and of the prison staff, while mentioning incidents that seemed to show at times either incompetence or pettiness. But he frequently writes about acts of real kindness by staff and by prisoners.  In the second jail where he spent time  he was able to share some facilities with a small group of other prisoners.

Even before his ordeal I admired Cardinal Pell for his clarity while speaking of some Church teachings that many find unpalatable. He was quite aware that he was a divisive figure in some ways. When asked by Pope Francis to go to the Vatican to clean up many financial anomalies there he met considerable resistance.

In either Volume One or Volume Two of his Prison Journal Cardinal Pell suggested that there are certain hymns that men or boys won't sing. He was really saying that they need manly hymns and gave two examples that his contemporaries in St Patrick's, Ballarat, Victoria, a boys' school, enjoyed singing.  One was Faith of Our Fathers, written by Father Frederick Faber, an Englishman who lived in the Oratory in Birmingham when Cardinal Newman was there. There are two different tunes to this hymn. I suspect that the tune used in St Patrick's was the one used in Ireland rather than the one that is popular in the USA. It used to be sung before major Gaelic Football and Hurling matches in Ireland 

In the early 1950s when I was a child our parish in Dublin introduced the other hymn that Cardinal Pell mentioned, We Stand for God. It was the one hymn I loved to sing with all my heart because it had a rousing quality to it. I discovered recently that the melody was that of the anthem of the Papal States and that was a hymn to the Blessed Mother.

At the end of the interview above by Colm Flynn of EWTN, an Irish journalist, Cardinal Pell was asked to summarize Benedict XVI in one word. He offered two words: Christian disciple. Neither the interviewer nor the interviewee could have imagined that the Cardinal would be dead just over a week later. May he and Benedict XVI, both faithful Christian disciples, rest in peace.

1 comment:

Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Father Seán,
Ghe biggest compliment that Cardinal George Pell gave Pope Benedict XVI was that he was not a politician!
Nowadays it is very rare for finding people that are sincere and honest and not politically influenced.
Loved the video with the song: We stand for God.