Remembering Cardinal George Pell: Personal Reflections Part 2

COMMENTARY: Collaborating with the cardinal at World Youth Day in Sydney was a high point of our relationship, but equally significant was his inspiring witness of courage — and encouragement to others — in the face of grave setbacks.

Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney kisses the altar during the final Mass at Southern Cross Precinct during World Youth Day Sydney 2008 on July 20, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.
Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney kisses the altar during the final Mass at Southern Cross Precinct during World Youth Day Sydney 2008 on July 20, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (photo: World Youth Day / Getty)

In my personal memories of the late Cardinal George Pell, the events surrounding World Youth Day — both in Toronto and Sydney — were a high point, both in terms of time spent together and intensity of collaboration.

In July 2007, he invited me to spend several weeks at Cathedral House in Sydney to work on preparations for WYD the following year. I then returned for several weeks during WYD itself in 2008 — though having to vacate Cathedral House when the papal party itself arrived!

We often began with Mass together in the house chapel, and in addition to meals together and specific projects, he would invite me to accompany him here and there so that I could learn about this or that. He arranged for me to meet important figures advancing the proposal, as he would call it, that “the Christian package works!" It was a most generous inclusion of a young priest in his life, a lens through which to see the challenges of preaching the gospel today. And it was immense fun. Cardinal Pell thought preaching the gospel should be.


World Youth Day Toronto

Cardinal Pell was an enthusiastic advocate for WYD, leading long-distance Australian pilgrimages to several of them. Immediately after WYD 2002 in Toronto, he insisted that I join the Australian delegation for a few days of retreat and relaxation at a summer camp north of the city. He invited the pilgrims to share their experiences, encouraged them to return to Australia with renewed vigor — and joined in their sports and games.

I recall two moments in particular. He teased his successor in Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart, about “preaching heresy” for a homily in which he mistakenly said that Jesus was the “perfect human person” rather than that Jesus is a divine person with a perfect human nature. Cardinal Pell did not only correct his juniors, but his brother bishops, too.

Archbishop Hart took the good-natured correction in the spirit it was intended, but there was some discomfort. He knew that he was Cardinal Pell’s significant inferior in both intelligence and learning — and that everyone else knew it, too. Some of Cardinal Pell’s brethren in the episcopate chafed when the comparison was made manifest.

The other memorable moment was when Cardinal Pell announced to us over Canadian beer that, having seen the magnificent live Stations of the Cross on University Avenue in Toronto, he was determined to do it even better in Sydney. He had only been archbishop there for a year, but he was resolved to bring WYD to Sydney as the catalyst for his vision of an Australian Catholicism that was orthodox, confident, spirited and attractive.


World Youth Day Sydney

My task in Sydney 2008 was to assist Cardinal Pell with the many addresses that he was to deliver in those days, several of them welcoming Pope Benedict XVI in different settings. It was a high honor to assist him in that, and he paid me the compliment of being rather direct when he was not satisfied with what I had drafted.

“You are writing as if I am Renata Tebaldi, Raymond, when I am more Maria Callas,” he explained one day. “Both are admirable, but one is not the other.”

I had no idea of who he was talking about, which proved occasion for a bit of instruction in culture. Tebaldi and Callas were great operatic sopranos of the 1950s and 1960s. Tebaldi was more elevated, Callas was more earthy, the former tending toward a refined elegance, the latter toward exultant force. Pell, the former Aussie Rules footballer, made it clear in which camp he fell. 

“Okay,” I said. “But I can’t sing either way.” 

That a brought a smile and instructions to re-draft without the fancy sentences.

Despite public caricature as a crotchety old curmudgeon, Cardinal Pell was kindly and not without sentiment. His welcoming address to Benedict at the closing Mass of WYD would be on July 20, the anniversary of my priestly ordination. He thus permitted me to include in his text a line I had preached in my first homily as a cleric: One mission is better than a thousand options.

To share, in a small way, in the great triumph of WYD Sydney, one of the highpoints of Pell’s 56 years of priesthood, remains for me a treasured memory.



There were not only highlights. I was with Cardinal Pell in July 2007 when news arrived that the American bishops has failed to approve a set of texts for the new translation of the Roman Missal. Cardinal Pell was chairman of the Vox Clara committee, an international advisory group of bishops working on a single new translation of the Mass in English. By 2007 he had worked for six years on the project, investing enormous time and energy. The failed American vote would mean that the “whole project would fall over” — an enormous failure and immense disappointment. 

He greeted the news with equanimity, resignation and determination. There was a simple acknowledgment that bold initiatives sometimes did not succeed. Many worthwhile ventures would be opposed. He trusted that his American brethren would attempt to salvage the project, which they did. The new translation came into force in 2011, one of his greatest achievements. The supposed autocrat brought to completion one of the most collegial projects of the last generation. 

I was in his Vatican office in April 2016 when the shocking news arrived that then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu had unilaterally canceled the first-ever Vatican-wide audit that Cardinal Pell had ordered as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. It was a devastating blow to the reform process, a reversal of the cardinal’s key initiative — and completely outside Archbishop Becciu’s authority to do so. Yet he persuaded Pope Francis to side with him against Cardinal Pell, who tasted bitter disappointment.

There were no histrionics. No outbursts. He continued his efforts, not viewing any setback as permanent. Eventually, Pope Francis would reconsider again, vindicating Cardinal Pell.

When I would teach young men Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, about what it means to be a man, I would often think that Pell filled out much of Kipling’s vision: If … [you can] watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.

Then there was the wrongful conviction. Speaking to him by phone on Epiphany 2019, between his conviction and sentencing to prison, he permitted himself only the most extreme understatement: “I concede it is a blow.” And when he actually went to prison he simply said that he was “overdue to make a retreat,” which he did for 404 days behind bars.

In time he was vindicated on that matter too.


Death of Benedict

The evening of Benedict XVI’s funeral, a small group of friends joined Cardinal Pell in his Roman apartment — in the same building where Cardinal Ratzinger lived until his election as pope. Exactly five days later, Cardinal Pell himself would die of cardiac arrest. 

He was in great form, proposing a toast in which he emphatically declared, twice for emphasis, “We are not celebrating the end of an era!”

What he routinely referred to as the project of “John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI” was to continue, he reminded us, even as Benedict was laid in the grave. 

Cardinal Pell’s meaning was clear, but with his death, an era is passing. The titans of John Paul’s pontificate are all in retirement and have mostly died; Cardinals Camillo Ruini and Francis Arinze are among the few left. Cardinal Pell was unusual in that his rise at the end of John Paul continued through both Benedict and Francis.

The tears that many shed — including myself — were because we lost what George Weigel styled a great “encourager” — one who gave courage to others. The Church needs courage; Cardinal Pell had that in spades. But not everyone has enough of it. So those who en-courage others are also essential. There are not so many of them, and one fewer now. 

Along with Weigel, professor Tracey Rowland, a fellow Aussie, was present that evening. Winner of the Ratzinger Prize in theology, Rowland is one of many whom Pell en-couraged over the years. She offer laudations in her remembrance of him in these pages.

“He knew he was born into a cosmic battle, and he was prepared to fight like the heroic cardinals caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War,” she wrote.

The day after his death I was at St. Michael’s Abbey in California, founded by Norbertines who had to flee communist Hungary. In the abbey are preserved vestments and other items from Cardinal Jozsef Mindzenty, the lion of Budapest, who suffered a white martyrdom at the hands of the communists.

There I offered the Holy Mass for Cardinal Pell, a father, friend and hero, on a private altar which contains relics of Cardinal Mindzenty. It was altogether fitting.


This is Part 2 of Father de Souza’s memories of Cardinal Pell. Part 1, which appeared on Jan. 18, may be read here.