Cardinal George Pell’s Via Crucis in Sydney
COMMENTARY: What was present last week on College Street in Australia was a dramatic public witness of the cross of Christ not in life, but in death.
SYDNEY — The funeral of the late Cardinal George Pell was not just a historic moment in the national life of Australia. It was the unforeseen fulfillment of an aspiration articulated 20 years earlier.
At World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, the live-action Via Crucis along University Avenue was a dramatic and spiritual highpoint, a secular city transfixed by the cross of Christ. It was one of the most discussed aspects of WYD Toronto, considered a triumph of imagination and public witness.
Watching it all carefully with his group of Aussie pilgrims in Canada, Cardinal Pell expressed his admiration and then told his friends, “We will do even better when we get World Youth Day in Sydney.”
He had only been archbishop of Sydney for less than 18 months at the time. In due course, he got WYD for Sydney in 2008. And WYD-SYD delivered a Via Crucis that was even better than Toronto, traveling not by road but by water through the harbor.
Cardinal Pell did not know then that he would provide another Via Crucis for Sydney, another dramatic public witness of the Via Dolorosa, not in life, but in death.
As the procession of priests — more than 250 — entered St. Mary’s Cathedral for his funeral Mass, protesters shouted abuse at them, chanting for Cardinal Pell “to go to hell.” After the Mass, his casket was carried out of the cathedral onto College Street, a major avenue, to proceed alongside the length of the cathedral to the entrance of the crypt where the archbishops of Sydney are buried.
The priests and bishops led the way. Across the street in the park, protestors held signs and hurled abuse — “Cardinal Pell, go to hell,” “Shame on the Catholic Church,” “Pedophile enablers” and variations of the same. For many of the priests, it was their first such encounter. The eight seminarians carrying the heavy, zinc-lined coffin had to determinedly maintain their focus, not be distracted from their task by those shouting at them.
Some of those faces carried great pain, marked by evident suffering. Some faces were contorted by rage. Some faces were corrupted by hate.
As the procession turned off College Street back to the cathedral precincts, those who had been in the cathedral forecourt for the Mass greeted the procession with cheers and the singing of the Ave Maria. In death, as in life, Cardinal Pell was both hailed and heckled.
After the burial, a close friend of the cardinal said to me, “Soon, the protesters will be forgotten, and those praying and singing will be remembered.”
Perhaps, but I rather think the opposite. People praying at a funeral are not news. Protesters are unusual. They will be remembered.
That is how I would prefer to remember it. Not only because those jeering and mocking were part of the history of the day, but because what was present on College Street was a powerful making present of the first Via Dolorosa. But unlike WYD, this was not actors playing Jesus. It was a high priest of Jesus Christ in the flesh — not carrying a cross, but being carried to his grave.
That was different.
The jeering and the mockery were the same.
Another difference was that Cardinal Pell was not alone. He was escorted by hundreds of bishops, priests and seminarians, many of whom were fiercely loyal to him.
But not everyone was there.
While two former Australian prime ministers attended, John Howard and Tony Abbott, ostentatious in their absence were the current prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and the premier of New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet, both of whom are Catholics. Aside from Catholics honoring the great Churchman, they should have been present as civic leaders at the funeral of one of Australia’s most accomplished citizens.
On the Via Dolorosa a great many who had formerly followed Jesus kept their distance. So it was in Sydney — not only in the state, but in the Church, too.
There were Churchmen who, when Cardinal Pell was under sustained and unjustified attack, kept their distance. Like the young man in Mark’s Gospel (14:52), they ran away, not naked, but in full pontificals.
That group was represented by Archbishop Denis Hart, Cardinal Pell’s successor as archbishop of Melbourne. He did not come to the funeral.
It should have been a shocking absence. It was not. Archbishop Hart had long abandoned Cardinal Pell in life. His absence in death was both painful — and predictable.
Archbishop Hart and the others made their contribution to Cardinal Pell’s final via dolorosa. The scene includes both the jeering crowd and those who ran away.
Cardinal Pell was not the savior, the redeemer. He was a sinner in need of salvation and redemption. And he was a witness that in the cross of Christ we find that salvation and redemption. That’s why he wanted to bring the Via Dolorosa to the highways and waterways of Sydney.
He did so in 2008. And he did it again in 2023.