A Warm Afternoon with Cardinal Pell

It has been four months since Cardinal George Pell was freed from Victoria’s Barwon Prison on April 7, after the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions. During his 400 days in jail many people, myself among them, sent the Cardinal letters and cards of support, hoping and praying he would be soon released. Now, a few months later, I have had the privilege of sitting for over an hour with the Cardinal who had graciously agreed to a meeting.

Before me was someone who had suffered greatly, yet was relaxed, serene, courteous and witty. While we were conversing, I could not help sensing his inner peace, from deep wells of the soul. He clearly has an ongoing lively interest in books which prison did nothing to abate.  Our discussion was mainly about his dear friend Father Paul Stenhouse (right), who died on November 19, 2019, and of whom many tributes have been written.

Cardinal Pell noted the “intellectual qualities” and “very fine Catholic writing” of Fr Stenhouse, saying he was “a deeply faithful priest.” He had heard of the priest-scholar before he met him in the 1990s in Melbourne and from there came a meeting of minds in which many situations in the church and the world were discussed. Fr Stenhouse, being the editor of Annals, the longest-running journal in Australian history, put his knowledge of history and language into this doughty publication from the 1960s. There was much to discuss, the Cardinal chuckling at how his older friend insisted on driving him around Sydney, “even when he was in his 80s!”  Asked his opinion of Fr Stenhouse’s driving, the Cardinal replied calmly that “he did not terrify me.”  He recalled how they would visit friends, go to restaurants and visited Camden, where Fr Stenhouse grew up. Among other subjects, they discussed the situation in the church, how to help those suffering from religious persecution,  and their high regard for Saint John Paul II.

When I asked how Fr Stenhouse had retained his calm in a time of Western cultural decay, the Cardinal pointed to his friend’s deep knowledge of church history. He added a personal note here, saying that he himself had studied Patristics, the study of the Church Fathers in the first 300 years of the church. Cardinal Pell obtained a doctorate from Oxford  University  in 1971 with a thesis entitled, “The exercise of authority in early Christianity from about 170 to about 270”,  deeply immersing himself in the events, conflicts and changes within the early church.  He considered that having an in-depth knowledge of church history  enabled him to see what is essential, beyond “the froth and bubble” of politics and current affairs.  It was a sure anchor for Father Stenhouse in a time of cultural turbulence and clearly so for the Cardinal.

See also: Cardinal Pell and the Business of Lying

In a time when the very idea of ‘history’ is derided, not to mention the notion of God’s intervention in history, Cardinal Pell has always encouraged Catholics to know their roots, to study their own history, to be advocates of memory. This resonated with me as a psychologist, as forgetting one’s life story indicates serious illness to health professionals who will attempt to restore what has been lost. If many in the West have forgotten their own stories, the remedy for this cultural amnesia is learning and re-learning our history, whose spiritual roots cannot breathe without them.

Cardinal Pell recalled the “great challenge and tragedy” of our times, the defection from Catholicism of the Anglo-Irish, recalling their great contribution to Australia’s history and how, at one stage, some 300 missionaries were sent from Australia to other countries.  He expressed gratitude to the priests from other lands who had come to work here, noting their conservatism might sometimes created problems, and implying it is now we who are recipients of evangelisation.

It was a delight for me to bring a smile to the Cardinal’s face by relating the story of the Polish ‘Stolen Virgin Mary’, told to me on one of my visits to eastern Poland and which he had not heard. Briefly, about 400 years ago, Polish Prince Mikołaj Sapieha visited Rome and asked Pope Urban VIII for a painting of the Virgin Mary in the papal chapel. The Pope refused. The prince, not being one to take ‘no’ for an answer,  then stole it and took it to eastern Poland, where it is to this day in the town of Kodeń. The Pope was immensely displeased until Prince Sapieha helped in a matter of church diplomacy, whereupon the prince was allowed to keep the painting. The locals claim many miracles have occurred through the intercession of the Stolen Virgin of Kodeń (left). Cardinal Pell was interested to learn that this was not about the renowned Cardinal Sapieha, who heroically conducted a seminary in Kraków and guided the young Karol Wojtyła into his seminary studies in 1942. No, it was not that Sapieha,  rather an ancestor.

When the subject of his forthcoming book arose, the Cardinal said it would come out in the next month in installments. He  wondered, with a low-key chuckle, if doing it this way in the current age would not “kill it dead.” I remarked that this would be impossible as many are waiting eagerly for his account of his time in jail, when he often awoke to the sound of Muslim prayers, and during which his Catholic faith sustained him. The very existence of Cardinal Pell’s account, even before publication, already promises to be riveting and will doubtless rank alongside those other accounts of twentieth century cardinals Joseph Mindszenty and Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, both persecuted and imprisoned on the strength of false allegations.


Cardinal Pell suffered at the hands of a post-modern ideology every bit as toxic and irrational as Communism, if masked by smoke and mirrors.  The overturning of all charges leveled against him brought to mind the passage: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed” (Rev 5:5).  Cardinal Pell’s witness to what Saint John Paul II called the “Gospel of Suffering” showed that he not only survived but survived heroically.  He prayed a great deal in jail and says publicly that he offered  his sufferings for others in union with Christ’s Cross. He is clearly at peace, without rancour, open to those who talk with him on many different subjects.  His forthcoming book will be a powerful testimony to his quiet endurance and trust in God’s providential care.

Wanda Skowronska is a Catholic psychologist and author living and working mainly in Sydney

15 thoughts on “A Warm Afternoon with Cardinal Pell

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    As a Church elder, the Cardinal is an exemplar of faith, a good man whose own sufferings offer strength to many who live by their faith daily in very trying circumstances. I am reminded of a Roman Catholic friend who told me by telephone yesterday that she firstly offers her various sufferings up to God. After that, she says, she ‘just gets on with it’, fighting for and caring for her adult son, severely disabled from birth, as well as coping with the usual run of life’s problems. She was overjoyed at the Cardinal’s release. There is majesty in such faith as my friend has, awe-inspiring, with the glorious language of the Bible and the liturgy of the Church to support it. Very humbling it is as well to know that in our fragmenting culture some people still live wholly within this originating Christian faith.

  • James Franklin says:

    Nice to read all that. I look forward to both Cardinal Pell’s book(s) and Wanda Skowronska’s biography of the amazing Paul Stenhouse.
    Thanks to the editor for including the link to Pell’s thesis. The abstract speaks of “monarchical episcopacy”, so there could be some insights into Pell’s style there.

  • pbw says:

    Not inspiring enough though, is it Lizzie?

    Did you have trouble downloading the thesis PDF? I can’t (so far) get it to work.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    pbw same problem,times out. Tried the Wayback Machine, although not archived there, it detected an error in the link. The closed padlock sign indicated the file is locked.

  • norsaint says:

    It’s worth remembering too that the people responsible for the persecution of the Cardinal, are the very same responsible for perpetrating the virus hoax in the pariah state. The execrable Andrews, cheered on by the incurious arse-likkin media hacks – and his henchmen in the Vicstapo, currently running around throwing citizens to the footpath for not wearing face nappies. God knows where this all ends.

  • DUBBY says:

    I knew Paul Stenhouse very well Wanda. Our rooms were opposite across the aisle at the Kensington Monastery. I agree with the high praise you lavish upon him. I only wish he had shown more determination in his opposition to taking candidates for the priesthood with a same sex orientation, instead of what he did show, which was nothing. I supported Cardinal Pell from the very beginning. I cheered when justice was finally done. I think he is Australia’s greatest cleric.
    Brenden T Walters

  • James Franklin says:

    About the thesis in the link: It’s 224MB which is a very big file and may strain some people’s internet connections. I was able to download it (after a while) but it’s too big to email. The first par says:

    “This study examines the changing patterns of authority both within
    and between the local Christian communities at the end of the second
    century and during the third. Amid the general tightening of Church
    discipline, the most significant development is the expansion and consolidation of a “monarchical” episcopate rather than the monepiseopate.
    A monarchical bishop is distinguished from one of the latter type by
    a greater control over the local congregation, a universal acceptance
    within his community of his position as chief teacher, having the last
    word on questions of orthodoxy, and the ability to act without the
    approval of his clergy and laity.”

  • talldad says:

    Cardinal Pell suffered at the hands of a post-modern ideology every bit as toxic and irrational as Communism, if masked by smoke and mirrors.

    That is because it derives from the same distorted and distorting source: the father of lies.
    We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly realm (Ephesians).

  • James Franklin says:

    From Wanda Skowronska:
    “Greetings ‘Dubby’.
    I have not published my book yet but I have interviewed many friends of Fr Stenhouse who all knew him ‘very well’ and they speak very highly of the good he did. I have come to realise no-one knew all he said and did as they are astounded when they find out. I did not see what you saw, but I know that he had a very
    quiet way of getting things done. In my interview with Cardinal Pell, whose view of Fr Stenhouse I sought, he spoke very highly of him too, especially praising his loyalty to his order and to the church in difficult times I have no doubt about his loyalty to the teachings of the church and he probably did suffer.”

  • pbw says:

    It downloaded for me eventually. It’s 493 pages which are all image files.

    I have a copy available at https://pbw.id.au/docs/Pell thesis.pdf
    if that is handier for anyone. (I don’t know whether this link will make it through intact.)

  • pbw says:

    A better idea is to get rid of the space in the name. https://pbw.id.au/docs/Pell-thesis.pdf

  • DUBBY says:

    I look forward to reading your book Wanda – I think. I spent eight years publicly exposing, what I considered to be, moral betrayal in the msc in relation to their accepting men into the Order who have a same sex attraction. I was pretty much alone in this view. The Provincial, Fr Gallagher, tried to kick me out, Fr Stenhouse told me to ‘go smell the roses.’ Note the differing approaches to doing good. I finally left on my terms and the msc rejoiced as they never rejoiced before. It takes courage to enter the battle where it rages most. Fr Stenhouse didn’t do that. Perhaps he now has the time to reflect. Good luck with your book. Fr Stenhouse was a victim of Original Sin just like the rest of us. Some people may read a one sided version of his life but nobody will remember it.

  • James Franklin says:

    From Wanda Skowronska:
    “Greetings again ‘Dubby’ and thank you for your thoughts.
    We live in troubled post-modern times.
    Whether they deal with problems publicly or quietly, many people are fighting it in their own way. Yes, without doubt we will all see things more clearly from ‘up there’. Stay well, all the best.

  • DUBBY says:

    If I could comment on your homily Wanda. I don’t know what post-modern times are. For present purposes I don’t care how people deal with their problems. What we might see from ‘up there’ is irrelevant to this conversation. All I care about is the truth. How Cardinal Pell would know anything about his (Stenhouse) loyalty to the Order or what he means by that, is beyond me. As far as loyalty to the Church is concerned, Fr Stenhouse was no better or worse that most of the other priests of his era. Good luck with your book.

  • DUBBY says:

    I am happy to respond personally. for your information.

Leave a Reply