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To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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On the Death and Requiem of Cardinal George Pell

This is the fifth installment of George’s “Letters from Rome” series featured by First Things.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
[Richard II. 3.2]

Cardinal George Pell, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest following a successful hip replacement operation on January 10, would scorn the notion that he was any sort of king, or even a prince—though he was, in fact, a Prince of the Church and, in the hearts of many Catholics, the titular leader of dynamic Catholic orthodoxy after the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Notwithstanding his guffaws from his present station in the Communion of Saints, however, George Pell was every bit as tremendous a figure in contemporary Catholicism as the kings whose death Richard II lamented in Shakespeare’s incomparable language. How so? Let me count (some of) the ways.

Virtually single-handedly, Pell stanched the doctrinal and disciplinary bleeding in Australian Catholicism that would likely have led that local Church to become a less-well-funded simulacrum of the apostate Catholicism now on display in Germany. 

He was the driving force behind the revision (and vast improvement) of the English translations of the prayers of the Roman Rite, which are now more accurate, more elegant and prayerful, and more faithful to the Latin originals.

He played a significant role in the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI and then brought that pope (with whom he had worked when Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008: an event that had a percussive effect Down Under not unlike what happened to Catholicism in the United States after World Youth Day 1993—which is to say, it transformed the New Evangelization from a slogan into an ecclesial grand strategy with real, on-the-ground pastoral effects.

He was the most visible opponent of dictatorship of woke relativism in Australian public life, a vigorous opponent of what John Paul II dubbed the “Culture of Death” and its embrace of abortion and euthanasia, an intelligent critic of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, and the scourge of prophets of catastrophic, anthropocentric climate change like Bill McKibben.

He played a central role in challenging the way the staff of the Synod of Bishops tried to rig the 2014 meeting of that bodyand then tried again at the Synod of 2015. 

He inspired a generation of younger Australian priests and bishops to be the good shepherds they were ordained to be, armoring their flocks against the toxicity of modern culture, and challenging all the baptized to be agents of building a culture of life through the power of the gospel.

He lived the good shepherd’s life he asked others to live, inviting thirty homeless people to morning tea in his archiepiscopal residence on one occasion and going out into the streets to eat with the homeless once a month—and without bringing a camera crew with him.

He spoke truth to media power and scorned the brutal calumnies to which he was subjected by most of the Aussie press, including the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And on the rare occasions when he was afforded the opportunity to make his own arguments, he gave as good as he got, with force but also a good humor his often-frothing adversaries singularly lacked. 

After being called to Rome by Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell made headway against the financial corruption of the Holy See, thoroughly reforming the Vatican Bank and identifying further reforms necessary to ensure the Vatican probity and solvency—until the support he had counted on from the highest authority disappeared. 

He faced down the vicious, malfeasant manipulation of the criminal justice system in the Australian state of Victoria, which cost him 404 days in prison in solitary confinement before he was triumphantly acquitted of implausible charges of “historic sexual abuse” by the High Court of Australia (which essentially said, of the trial jury that convicted him and the majority on the appellate panel that upheld the conviction, that they had acted irrationally). In winning his case, and despite enormous suffering, George Pell helped save what remains of the rule of law in the country he cherished—and left behind three volumes of prison diaries that have become something of a contemporary spiritual classic, giving solace to people all over the world.

The Roman Requiem 

After a day of visitation in the little Church of St. Stephen of the Abyssinians behind St. Peter’s, where friends could come and pray by his casket and sprinkle it with holy water (a lovely Italian custom), Cardinal Pell’s Requiem Mass was celebrated on January 14 in the apse of the Vatican Basilica, beneath Gianlorenzo Bernini’s colossal bronze masterpiece, the Altar of the Chair. Non-papal liturgies, including cardinals’ requiems, are always celebrated in that large space. But veterans of such events said that the congregation that assembled to bid farewell to George Pell, and to beg the Father of Mercies to take his servant into the embrace of the Trinity, was the largest they had ever seenlarger even than congregations for the diaconate ordinations celebrated there by the Pontifical North American College. Shortly before the Mass began, the Sanpietrini, the basilica work force, were frantically setting up chairs behind the pews in the vast apse, the pews having long since overflowed. And thus the congregation filled the entire area between the Altar of the Chair and another Bernini triumph, the baldacchino over the papal high altar beneath the basilica’s great dome. As one of the cardinal’s longtime collaborators said, “When people fly in from all over the world on short notice, something is being said.” 

The Requiem Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, with dozens of cardinals and bishops concelebrating and others present “in choir.” Among the concelebrants were the two most refractory opponents of Pell’s financial reforms, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno and Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu (whose dispatch of Vatican funds to Australia during Pell’s judicial purgatory has never been satisfactorily explained, and who issued a smarmy, self-serving statement on Pell’s death). Then there was Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., whose doctoral dissertation, “Feuerbach the Teacher and Marx the Prophet: An Introduction to Religion,” Pell, the scholar with the Oxford doctorate, had read and found appalling. More fittingly, the concelebrants included many men who esteemed George Pell: Their number included the retired Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini; the American cardinals Raymond Burke, James Harvey, and Edwin O’Brien; and the nonagenarian Nigerian Francis Arinze. The only non-episcopal concelebrant was Pell’s most recent priest-secretary, the faithful Fr. Joseph Hamilton.

Cardinal’s Re’s homily described the deceased cardinal as “a man of God and a man of the Church” who was “characterized by a deep faith and great steadfastness of doctrine, which he always defended without hesitation and with courage, concerned only with being faithful to Christ.” And while that might have sounded to some ears like ecclesiastical boilerplate, in this instance it wasn’t. It struck me as quite sincere, because Pell and Re respected each other and had worked together on more than one occasion—one quite recently—to forestall what they believed would be catastrophic decisions by the present papal administration. The Gospel reading at the Requiem was equally apt, given the circumstances of the cardinal’s death, as Luke 12 records the Lord praising the “servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.” Nor did the Cardinal Dean miss the mark when he noted that George Pell was a “strong-willed and decisive protagonist” notable for a “strong character.” What Cardinal Re might have added was that, unlike his journalistic, political, and ecclesiastical opponents, Pell, while fighting hard, always fought fair.

As is customary on these occasions, the pope celebrated the last part of the liturgy, the Final Commendation and Farewell, after being wheeled into the apse of the basilica and then gotten into a portable chair. Looking poorly, Pope Francis nonetheless commended the deceased to the mercy of God and, after he was wheel-chaired out of the apse, paused a moment to receive Cardinal Pell’s brother David, who said to Francis of his sibling, “He was your friend.” The pope patted David Pell on the shoulder. 

The only undignified moment in the Requiem came at the very end, when six Sanpietrini stood around the casket, seemingly not knowing what to do next. Reinforcements arrived, and the heavy casket bearing the mortal remains of Cardinal George Pell, a large man in every respect, was borne out of St. Peter’s as the congregation spontaneously burst into sustained applause and thus rendered its own judgment on a large life. 

The Last Testaments, So to Speak

Preaching in 1998 at the funeral Mass of his friend and mentor, the fiercely anticommunist and robustly Catholic Australian labor leader B. A. Santamaria, then-Archbishop Pell of Melbourne said, “We are told that the sure mark of a false prophet is that all people speak well of him. In death, as in life, Bob Santamaria has triumphantly escaped such a fate.” The same could be said for George Pell. And it seems likely that the anti-Pell calumnies will multiply as the proponents of Catholic Lite wrestle with two documents that will, fairly or not, be regarded as the cardinal’s last testament.

The first, an article, appeared in the London Spectator the day after the cardinal’s death and was a biting critique of the working document for the Synod on Synodality’s “continental phase,” which is taking place throughout the world in the first quarter of this year. The cardinal had asked me for comments on a draft of the article when I was working in Rome in early December, and was concerned during the week of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s funeral in January that the article hadn’t appeared yet, given what he regarded as the urgency of the situation. Evidently, the Speccie’s editors decided to publish the piece quickly, on getting news of the cardinal’s death.

The language of Pell’s critique is unsparing: The Synod process has turned into a “toxic nightmare” in which the bishops, normally thought to be the protagonists of a Synod of Bishops, have been effectively sidelined; moreover, the working document for the continental phase of the Synod is an “outpouring of New Age good will” that is “hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition and nowhere acknowledges the New Testament as the Word of God, normative for all faith and morals.” The cardinal was also deeply concerned that the chief Relator (or leader) when the Synod meets in October 2023 is scheduled to be Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., who has “publicly rejected the basic teachings of the Church on sexuality on the grounds that they contradict modern science”; “in normal times,” Pell continued, “this would have meant that his continuing as Relator was inappropriate, indeed impossible.”

Caricatures notwithstanding, George Pell was no authoritarian (unlike some of those leading the Synod process). In his Spectator article, he freely concedes the “failings of bishops, who sometimes do not listen . . . and can be clericalist and individualist.” But Christ mandated that his Church be governed by bishops who, as Pell wrote, have been, “since the time of St. Irenaeus of Lyon . . . the guarantor[s] of continuing fidelity to Christ’s teaching, the apostolic tradition.” And that, as I and others have written, is the bottom-line question throughout the entire, often-flabby discussion of “synodality” in the contemporary Church, whether those discussions involve the German Church’s “Synodal Path” or this Synod on Synodality in its sundry phases: Is divine revelation real, authoritative, and binding over time, or does our contemporary experience authorize us to modify, adjust, or even dispense with what comes to us through the Bible and the apostolic tradition?

An answer to that question from those who confected what Cardinal Pell rightly deplored as “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome” has not been forthcoming. 

The second of these “last testaments” is actually an earlier document, a comprehensive critique of the present pontificate, first published last March on the Settimo Cielo blog of veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister, the author being pseudonymously identified as “Demos.” The day after Cardinal Pell’s death, Magister revealed on his blog that “Demos” was in fact George Pell. Judging from both the text and my conversations with the cardinal, it seems to me likely that the document was the result of conversations among more than a few members of the College of Cardinals. Certain formulations, however, are quite familiar to those who were in regular contact with Cardinal Pell and he seems to have been, on Magister’s testimony, the final redactor of what came out of those conversations.

The “Demos” manifesto is less of a polemic than Pell’s Spectator article and lays out the case against the present direction of papal policy and action in several categories: theological/doctrinal, legal, and administrative. The manifesto deserves close, careful reading, so only a few summary points will be mentioned here.

(1) The present papal administration seems unclear about the nature of the Petrine Office in the Church. It is fine for this pope or any pope to encourage young people to “make a mess” in trying new ways to bring Christ to others and to serve the marginalized. But the papacy does not exist to make a mess. As “Demos” puts it, “Previously, the motto was Roma locuta. Causa finita est. [Rome has spoken. The cause is over.] Today it is: Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur. [Rome speaks, confusion grows.]”

(2) There is a marked Christocentric deficit in Church teaching today. This is manifest in many ways, not least the “systematic attacks” on the “Christocentric legacy of St. John Paul II” manifest in the dismantling of the Lateran University’s John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family (now bereft of students), and the attacks on John Paul’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor in several Roman academic venues and in the Pontifical Academy of Life.

(3) Lawlessness rather than justice currently characterizes Vatican administrative and judicial practice. “Demos”/Pell even criticizes the fact of Cardinal Becciu’s being “removed from his office” and stripped of many of his privileges “without any evidence” and without “due process.” The same could be said for the way in which this pontificate dealt with the Archbishop of Paris and the Bishop of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Lawless acts in the Vatican during the present pontificate, including wiretapping and seizures of property, are not uncommon. 

(4) The constant use of the motu proprio as an instrument of papal governance is akin to the excessive use of executive orders by presidents of the United States and betrays a certain autocratic approach to governance.

(5) Vatican finances remain in serious trouble, in terms of financial process within the Holy See, investment policy and practice, and a vast, unfunded pension liability.

(6) The moral authority of the Holy See in world affairs is “at a low ebb,” thanks to the Vatican’s current China policy and its analogues in the Vatican approach to other authoritarian countries, in which “dialogue” has replaced clear moral witness and the robust defense of persecuted Christians. 

The “Demos” document then concludes by outlining what will be required of the next conclave to elect a pope. 

Whatever brickbats will be thrown at the grave of Cardinal Pell because of these two testamentary statements, serious people in the Church will focus on the question of whether these texts accurately describe the current Catholic situation. I believe they do. Let the critics demonstrate the opposite. 

“Be Not Afraid”

Benedict XVI’s death was a sadness, but the sorrow was bearable because his death had been expected for years. George Pell’s death struck those who looked to him for leadership in the current Catholic circumstance like a hammer blow. His friends feel deprived of a source of wisdom, strength, and, yes, joy, for Cardinal Pell was immense fun. And, it must be said, the cardinal who, perhaps more than any other, put spine into his fellow cardinals has been taken from the scene; so what is the Lord saying? Perhaps it might be suggested that the message being conveyed is this: It’s time for others in the College of Cardinals to step up and display the grit and fortitude that was a hallmark of George Pell’s service to the Church.

On being nominated bishop, Pell took as his episcopal motto John Paul II’s signature phrase from the homily at his inaugural Mass of October 22, 1978: Be Not Afraid. Living that injunction in his own life, George Pell helped many, many others to live, not so much without fear but beyond fear: to face our challenges in the sure knowledge that it is Christ who has triumphed over sin and death, and Christ who is ultimately in charge of the Church. Our task is to conform our lives, teaching, and action to those fundamental realities of the Christian life.  

It is, in truth, a fearful time in the Catholic Church, no more so than in a Vatican in which fear dominates the current atmosphere. And now the embodiment of Catholic fearlessness, Cardinal George Pell, has gone to his eternal reward. Those of us who loved him, and especially those of us fortunate enough to have collaborated with him, must now live that fearlessness and call others to itespecially with those charged with providing the Church its future papal leadership.

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