In reaction to the surprise death of Cardinal George Pell of Australia last night, it’s likely that a good deal of media attention will focus on the impact for the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, coming as it does hard on the heels of the recent passing of Pope Benedict XVI.
That’s fair enough, since Benedict was, in a sense, the Thinker-in-Chief for conservative Catholicism, while, especially in the English-speaking realm, Pell was more akin to its field general. He was a born battler, a former Australian Rules Football star and the son of a heavyweight boxing champion, who could translate Benedict’s lofty defense of Catholic orthodoxy into the hurly-burly of both secular and ecclesiastical politics.
Over the course of his life, four titanic battles defined much of Pell’s public legacy.
- His crusade against what he saw as an anti-Roman affect in Aussie Catholicism, an over-emphasis on an egalitarian and “live and let live” ethos that sometimes, as he saw it, translated into going soft on Catholic faith and morals. The effort to bring his country more into the Roman orbit defined much of his career as Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney in the 1990s and 2000s.
- Defending Catholic orthodoxy on the global stage and in Rome, where Pell did everything in his power to promote like-minded conservatives and to resist the inroads of figures he saw as compromised or fuzzy. Among other things, Pell played the role of kingmaker among English-speaking cardinals in two conclaves, lobbying successfully for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, who become Pope Benedict, and unsuccessfully in 2013 for Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.
- Pushing honesty and transparency in Vatican finances, a battle he fought at a distance as a member of a Council of Cardinals advising the Prefecture for Economic Affairs under Popes John Paul and Benedict, and which he waged more in earnest as Pope Francis’s first-ever Secretary for the Economy beginning in 2014.
- Pell’s struggle to save his own reputation, even his freedom, when charges of sexual abuse were lodged against him in his home country in 2017. After one jury was unable to reach a verdict, a second convicted Pell and he would ultimately spend roughly 400 days in prison before being exonerated by Australia’s highest court in April 2020. Pell would publish a three-volume set of memoirs documenting his prison experience.
Pell’s return to Rome after his legal battles in Australia more or less coincided with my return to living here full-time, which gave us the opportunity to see one another more frequently. Over conversations in his Vatican apartment – which, he informed my wife Elise and I, he had swept regularly for electronic surveillance, because the Vatican in his view has become a “police state” – or over meals at our house and in favorite Rome restaurants, Pell would share his ever-colorful assessments of personalities and issues, not to mention his often disparaging take on whatever I’d just written or said.
During one of our recent exchanges, Pell speculated that Pope Francis was suffering from an undisclosed illness related to his colon surgery in 2021 and that we’d have a conclave before Christmas. Since the holidays are over, I’d been meaning to call Pell to rib him about getting that wrong – sadly, now I’ll never have the chance.
To sum up, the George Pell I knew was brash, hilarious, opinionated and tough as nails. I never worked for him, but I know plenty of people who did, and they say he could be equal parts a bull in a China shop and the most caring father figure you’d ever meet. With Pell, literally, you got strong doses of both the bitter and the sweet.
Full story at Crux.