Cardinal George Pell’s Funeral, in 6 Magnificent Dimensions

COMMENTARY: In the heat of a summer Sydney morning, a singular funeral marked the end of a singular life.

Cardinal George Pell’s funeral Mass drew thousands of mourners to Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral Feb. 2, 2023.
Cardinal George Pell’s funeral Mass drew thousands of mourners to Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral Feb. 2, 2023. (photo: Giovanni Portelli / The Catholic Weekly)

SYDNEY — The cathedral of Sydney is one of the grandest liturgical settings anywhere, a monumental stage for the great drama of salvation to be made present. 

In its 150-plus years, St. Mary’s has never been witness to an event quite like the funeral of the late Cardinal George Pell, a great drama in its own right. It was a sacred pageant which unfolded in six magnificent dimensions — liturgical, musical, spiritual, historical, hagiographical and memorial. 

I offer an account of what I saw, but my vision was blurry; many times during the nearly four hours my eyes were filled with tears.



The funeral of Cardinal Pell was just that — a Catholic funeral, recognizable as such to anyone who has ever attended a simply parish funeral. The ancient hymn for the dead, Dies Irae, speaks of the Rex tremendae maiestatis (King of tremendous majesty). Before that throne the liturgy has a certain equalizing tendency. Even the great Habsburg emperors were buried as “poor sinners.” 

At the same time, the liturgy, performed expertly, can accommodate the grandeur fitting for a giant of the age. Such was the case at St. Mary’s. A procession of more than 200 priests and dozens of bishops signals that, as does a congregation that spills out of an enormous cathedral into the square outside. 

Every note was perfect. The liturgy provides painfully poignant moments, as when Michael Casey, Cardinal Pell’s former private secretary, read Romans 8: 

When God acquits, could anyone condemn? ... Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or being threatened or even attacked.

Every liturgical act is intended to insert those present into the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. A funeral Mass does so easily, as the deceased is evidently in need of the promises made by the Risen Jesus, present in the Holy Eucharist. The subtle change in the Agnus Dei indicates that precisely: dona eis requiem (grant them rest) replaces the usual miserere nobis (have mercy on us). The Paschal mystery is a cosmic reality; it is also the answer to the mystery of each individual human life, including the life of a cardinal.



When Father Tomás Luis de Victoria composed his Missa pro Defunctis more than 400 years ago, could he have imagined that it would be supremely fitting for Australia’s greatest churchman and an exemplary patron of sacred music? The music of the liturgy carries the Church on its pilgrimage through history, across oceans to the ends of the earth — and to the threshold of heaven.

The Pell funeral was a treasure of Catholic culture, in which sacred music has a central place. The libretto noted that the music had been chosen “with particular regard to Cardinal Pell’s support and encouragement of Sacred Music in Australia, and around the world.”

Hymns he had chosen for significant occasions were selected. St. John Henry Newman’s Firmly I Believe and Truly was sung at his installation as archbishop of Sydney, and was sung in the same cathedral at the funeral. 

That hymn expresses the core of the Church’s doctrines: Trinity, Incarnation, redemption and the divine constitution of the Church. Biographically, it united Pell’s doctoral studies at Oxford with the saint who had to leave Oxford when he converted to Catholicism. Indeed, Newman’s hymns express the entire patrimony of English-speaking Catholicism of which the Church in Australia is the heir.

The patrimony is living, not locked in the past. Sir James MacMillan is the greatest living composer of sacred music. MacMillan, a Scottish Catholic, was given the historic commission of composing an anthem for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. That was done years in advance. 

When Cardinal Pell died on Jan. 10, Sir James was contacted and agreed to compose a motet for the funeral in a matter of days. Taking the first reading, Wisdom 3, and inserting Cardinal Pell’s motto, Be Not Afraid, his motet was sung at the offertory. It was a high honor to Cardinal Pell that Sir James would do so, and a fitting tribute to the power of sacred music. 

The cardinal and I shared a Commonwealth bond, but differed on the genius of the monarchy; I took a more favorable view than he did. So it pleased me immensely to know that his funeral was linked through Sir James to that of Her Late Majesty. It would have pleased him too, as he had enormous esteem for Queen Elizabeth. 



The power of the liturgy is such that poor preaching, while regrettable at a funeral, is not disabling — the most important words are not those of the preacher. Yet a homilist who rises to the occasion can ennoble the obsequies and inspire the congregation. The pressure on Archbishop Anthony Fisher, preacher for the most important funeral in Australia’s Catholic history, must have been immense. He did his Order of Preachers proud, delivering a funeral homily of spiritual depth and literary heights. 

Masterfully using the decorations at Domus Australia — the guesthouse for Australian pilgrims which Pell built in Rome — as his inspiration, he employed the images of the saints that Cardinal Pell chose to show us something of his spirituality, a look into his heart, the heart of a disciple and pastor.  

That heart was formidable, and Archbishop Fisher’s peroration was rhetorically brilliant, recalling that the cult of St. George, the cardinal’s patron saint, was promoted in England by Richard the Lionheart. 

“He was a lion of the Church, a giant of a man with a big vision,” Archbishop Fisher said. Cardinal Pell proclaimed the Gospel “shamelessly, vehemently, courageously to the end.”

“He had a big heart, too, strong enough to fight for the faith and endure persecution, but soft enough to care for priests, youth, the homeless, prisoners and imperfect Christians,” Archbishop Fisher preached. “Ultimately that heart gave out, but only after more than 80 years of being gradually conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

The grand funeral oration is a risk. It can fall flat and become strained, or worse, tedious. Preachers ought to be careful in launching one, lest it not take flight. But when it does, it has the power to lift up the soul and to warm a grieving heart. Archbishop Fisher took that risk — be not afraid! — and “farewelled” (as they say Down Under) his predecessor with fitting honor.



Alongside the consoling ethos of the Catholic funeral were rhetorical tours-de-force in the two eulogies, the first delivered by David Pell, the cardinal’s brother, and the second by Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia. The sublime preaching of Archbishop Fisher gave way to a reverent defiance. That was fitting, for reverent defiance was often enough the posture Cardinal Pell himself adopted.

David Pell spoke not only to those present but also for the historical record, taking pains to correct some of the more outrageous slanders of his brother. Calling him “a prince of the Church, a good and holy man, and a proud Australian,” David remarked that the entire family suffered from the “the relentless campaign to smear George’s life.”

In praise of his brother, devoted to truth both sacred and profane, David told the Australian media to “purify” themselves of the half-truths, mistruths and lies they had told about George. It was a demand to tell the truth about recent history, confident that the truth was his brother’s ultimate vindication.

The Archdiocese of Sydney did not permit the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the state-funded TV network, into the cathedral for the funeral, an acknowledgement of their decades-long campaign against Cardinal Pell.



Abbott then delivered a fiery tribute to “his mate, mentor and spiritual father.” It is quite impossible to imagine another former head of government speaking about a prelate as Abbott did. It was an historic address, and Abbott made his case for what the judgement of history should be.

“Cardinal Pell was the greatest Catholic Australia has ever produced, and one of our country’s greatest sons,” he began, characterizing the funeral as a “a joyous tribute to a great hero.” 

Declaring his view that Cardinal Pell is a “saint for our times”, Abbott directly addressed those who consider Pell wicked, deserving hatred in this world and torment in the world to come:

His greatest triumph in fact, was not to have held the highest ecclesiastical offices of any Australian but to have kept his faith in circumstances which must have screamed, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Not to succumb to anger, self-pity, or despair, when almost any other human would, and instead to have accepted this modern-day crucifixion, walking humbly in the footsteps of our Lord.

That’s the heroic virtue that makes him, to my mind, a saint for our times.

And as I heard the chant [from protesters outside the church], “Cardinal Pell should go to hell,” I thought, “Aha! At least, they now believe in the afterlife.”

Perhaps this is St. George Pell’s first miracle!



The liturgy makes present the Paschal mystery, an act of memory, but a “memorial” that mysteriously makes present now what God did in history.

As the procession of priests led Cardinal Pell’s body out of the cathedral to the street outside, that mysterious memorial extended itself. The protesters chanted “Shame on the Catholic Church” and various epithets. Some faces carried great pain, marked by evident suffering. Some faces were contorted by rage. Some faces were corrupted by hate.

The Via Dolorosa came to College Street. 

Cardinal Pell no longer walked, but was carried in the footsteps of Our Lord.

The great drama of salvation was present.

It was courageous for Archbishop Fisher to permit the mob to have one last go at Cardinal Pell. It could not be otherwise. Cardinal Pell himself would not have hidden. He faced his enemies in life and it would have been wrong to deny him that in death.

David Pell made the case for history, Abbot for fitting hagiography. Time will tell. 

What was already clear in the heat of a summer Sydney morning was that a singular funeral marked the end of a singular life. 

The lion roared in witness to the truth, roared to protect the faith. The roar is now silent. The lion’s heart beats no more. The lion sleeps. And I wept for him.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered — Revelation 5:5.