Cardinal Pell: Dearly Departed Father of the Synod on Synodality

COMMENTARY: Two recent reflections offer timeless wisdom.

The Archbishop Of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell addresses the media during a press conference ahead of World Youth Day Sydney 08, at the Polding Centre on July 8, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.
The Archbishop Of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell addresses the media during a press conference ahead of World Youth Day Sydney 08, at the Polding Centre on July 8, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (photo: Brendon Thorne / Getty)

Have you ever heard a homily or spiritual reflection that moved you to your core? 

I’ve been blessed to hear two in the past four months, both from close friends who have powerfully influenced our Church. The first was from the late and great Cardinal George Pell; the second from the longtime head of the Acton Institute, Father Robert Sirico. Their reflections hit me hard because of their timeless wisdom on a timely topic: the Synod on Synodality.

Even at this stage, the Synod isn’t that well-known, but it’s one of the biggest things happening in the Church right now. At Pope Francis’ direction, it launched in late 2021, and its next big moments are two assemblies of bishops in October of this year and then October of next year. The whole point of this historic event, per the Holy Father, is to “journey together” as a Church. 

Pope Francis deserves praise for prioritizing this goal, and the Church would benefit from greater clarity about synodality. The synod members, including some cardinals and bishops, may ultimately propose that the Holy Father decentralize more of the Church’s decision-making.

This brings me to the two spiritual reflections.

The one from Cardinal Pell was actually his last homily, given just three days before he died in January. He never mentioned the Synod on Synodality by name, but anyone who knew him understood it was his topic. It seems to me that two powerful themes were at the heart of his homily: a deep worry that the synod could weaken the Church’s commitment to unchanging truth and a deep love for the Lord, who is the Author of that truth.

Cardinal Pell began by praising Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose years were “pivotal for all of history.” They were elevated into positions of leadership after parts of the Church “collapsed radically, with the danger that this collapse could be even more extensive.” Yet through their faithful stewardship, the opposite happened. “John Paul stabilized the Church,” as did Benedict after him. 

The reason, Cardinal Pell said, was profoundly simple: They “did not affirm that the teaching of Jesus was conditioned by the time” or claim that it “should be updated, radically changed.” To the contrary, “they accepted the teaching of Jesus as it has come down to us. As for them, and also for us, Jesus remains the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Cardinal Pell concluded with a reminder that we, as Catholics, are called to protect that truth. He declared, “We are not the teachers of the apostolic doctrine; we are the defenders: We serve and respect this precious rule of faith.” Why? Because “all Catholics, of any age, throughout the world, also have the right to receive the same teaching that Jesus and the apostles gave.” 

These were among the last words Cardinal Pell said on this earth. In the context of the Synod on Synodality, they made me think of Pope Francis’ wise decision to uphold Church teaching following the radical proposals of the 2019 Amazon synod.

The second reflection, from Father Sirico at a Napa Institute event in Rome, happened in late April. It was actually a tribute to Cardinal Pell. 

Like the cardinal, Father Sirico expressed a deep concern that elements of the synod betray “a hostility to the apostolic tradition itself and that tradition’s normative teaching on faith and morals,” raising questions about the very nature of the Church itself. 

He saw the question as, “Does the Church exist by virtue of a divine mandate and a deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles to be handed down faithfully from one generation to another, intact?” Or is the Church “an open process of community, whereby the insights and experiences of each subsequent generation contribute to what the Church is and may even override any fixed doctrine?”

Cardinal Pell strongly believed in the unchanging nature of the Church’s teaching, yet according to Father Sirico, he also understood, like St. John Henry Newman, that doctrine unfolds over time and within the context of each generation. As Father Sirico put it, “the development of the Church’s teaching is indeed a dynamic process, yet with the proper safeguards, an authentic development can be undertaken without diluting — and in fact, strengthening and clarifying — the deposit” of faith. The synod can do that, but only if it’s guided by love of the Church’s timeless teaching instead of a desire to adapt to the spirit of the times.

Father Sirico ended on a note of hope, expressing his belief that Cardinal Pell’s influence would shape, and even rescue, the Synod on Synodality. Indeed, he hoped “we would one day call Cardinal Pell the ‘absent father of the synod,’” much as St. John Henry Newman is famously called the “absent father of the Second Vatican Council.” 

May that be all our prayer in the days ahead. And may the wisdom and faith that moved me in these spiritual reflections also move the Synod on Synodality and preserve Christ’s Church. 

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