‘Be Not Afraid’: In Memory of George Pell

On 10 January 10, 2024, in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher marked the first anniversary of Cardinal George Pell’s death with a memorial Mass. These are his remarks, slightly edited, about his achievements, his decency — and the lack of it in those who persecuted him a good and decent man.


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell, Companion of the Order of Australia, Prefect Emeritus of the Secretariat of the Economy, and our beloved former Archbishop. On this first anniversary of his death, we gather to pray for his soul and celebrate the witness of Australia’s greatest ever churchman.

Years ago, I was in a lift in James Goold House, then the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s chancery building, when I overheard some officials discussing the translation of George Pell to Sydney. One remarked that his motto had been “Be not afraid” and wondered what his successor’s watchword would be. From the back of the lift I whispered, “Be very afraid!”

The motto came, of course, from Christ, and was quoted by St John Paul the Great at his election.[1] “Be not afraid,” Jesus tells His disciples repeatedly.[2] “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me.” (Jn 14:1,27) With the Lord as my light and help, our Psalmist sang, whom shall I fear? (Ps 26:10) And as Paul said in our epistle, we should have the confidence of heirs, not the anxiety of slaves (Rom 8:14-23).

George Pell was unafraid. In the inaugural Acton Lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies he argued that the Church’s task today is to teach and demonstrate that “true freedom requires truth and is the fruit of consistently striving for what is good.”[3] Yet, as he knew very well, there are competing accounts of truth and goodness. There are many options open to us, some good, some less so, some plain evil. To know and care which is which and choose well between them requires an unwavering commitment to truth and consistent willing of the good. And these were marks of the man George Pell.

In postmodernity it’s pick your own poison when it comes to the good. But the Cardinal was no relativist. Only a limited number of genuine goods constitute human flourishing and explain our rational choices: life and health, truth and beauty, friendship and family, work and leisure, integrity and religion.[4] Each is self-evidently valuable, a divine perfection and a human need. We all seek them all, but most of us specialise in one or two for much of our lives. Doctors focus on life and health; teachers on knowledge; artists on beauty; and so on. In sporting parlance, those rare players who master every position on the field are called ‘unicorns’. Cardinal Pell was such a unicorn in the arena of faith and morals. He had the imagination, focus and energy to attend to all the goods of human flourishing, more or less all the time.

He was, for instance, unafraid in his pursuit and proclamation of the truth. Wholly convinced that flourishing required cultivation of intellect, he studied and read widely, accumulating a large library of books with his scribbles in them. He was a passionate advocate of Catholic educational institutions.[5] He promoted sound catechesis, good teaching and fair funding for schools. He helped found or lead several tertiary institutions.

He also dedicated himself to the goods of life and health. He valiantly taught that all life is worth protecting, especially the most vulnerable. He wrote, preached and lectured on the dignity of all people, fought for Catholic healthcare institutions, and offered grants for ethical medical research. He established ministries for those suffering psychological afflictions and addictions, for the indigenous, ex-prisoners and the poor.[6]

But it wasn’t all cerebral. After the Cardinal’s conviction, Pope emeritus Benedict asked me how his friend was faring and gave me a message for when next I visited him in prison. He recalled that, at the end of World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008, I had said that Cardinal Pell was a big man with a big heart, big enough to love the young people of the world and brave enough to embrace something like World Youth Day. Benedict assured me that this big heart would carry George through his travails. Both men had cultivated their heart as well as their heads, especially through music and the arts. He was a regular at concerts and promoted the cathedral choir. When he built the Australian Pilgrim House in Rome and the retreat centre at Gross Vale, he commissioned for them an array of art.

“Perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). George Pell was deeply loyal to his family and friends, had a great gift for friendship, and promoted that great good especially as lived out in marriage. He was under no illusions regarding the assaults on this institution in secular modernity.[7] So, he founded Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, and offices for Melbourne and Sydney.

He was also unafraid to establish Catholic business networks in Melbourne and Sydney, to back Catholic professional associations, and to support the John Paul II Foundation for Sport. He also helped those who lacked work or leisure, and regularly advocated for them.

Finally, Dr Pell had the courage to promote morality and religion by word and example. In bemoaning the declines in sexual ethics and reverence for human life, in exposing the downsides of secularisation, relativism and wokery, and in resisting the reduction of conscience to strong opinion, he won many friends and not a few enemies. He served his religion faithfully as a parish pastor, bishop and archbishop. He reformed seminaries and built evangelising, tertiary and youth ministries. Sydney’s World Youth Day 2008, the biggest festival in the history of our nation, was his most daring project. But in keeping the rudder of the Church in Australia fixed upon the apostolic tradition, he did more than anyone to save it from becoming the sort of confused and dying institution that has been the Church’s fate in some places. We have much to thank him for, as will those who follow after us.

In 2003 he was created Cardinal and, because his titular church was Sta Maria Mazzarello, he was known as “the Big Cheese” in some circles. At one time or another he served on most of the Vatican dicasteries,[8] and from 2013 as inaugural Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a Member of the Pope’s inner Council. Recently Pope Francis recalled “the zeal, conviction, determination and vision” of “our much-mourned brother” George. He said the Cardinal had understood better than most what was needed regarding Vatican financial reforms. No Australian has done more for the Church international.

Following a media, political and police witch-hunt, Cardinal Pell was tried and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Even after being unanimously exonerated by the High Court, he continued to be demonized by some; some even sought to disrupt his funeral. Though he deeply regretted the anguish his “misadventures” caused his family and friends, George insisted on Christian forgiveness and perspective. He knew, as Paul put it in our epistle today, “that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory awaiting us” (Rom 8:14-23). If we suffer in good spirit with Christ, we will share in His victory. So, he was not embittered by his troubles, as many would be; if anything, he emerged gentler and more forgiving. This man of courage proved to be a great encourager to others.

When the young George Pell was deciding his vocation, many possibilities lay before him: intellectual, footballer, leader.

Faith and reason taught him that to flourish human beings need life and health, truth and beauty, friendship and family, work and leisure, morality and religion. It is to serve all these dimensions of human happiness and participations in the divine that the Church exists, and to which George decided to lend his considerable gifts as a unicorn playing for every human good.

A few decades before, Thérèse of Lisieux found it terribly hard to choose between vocations, saying she wanted them all! “I feel within me the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr,” she wrote. “I feel the need and desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus.”[9] No-one ever called George “the little flower”. But, like Thérèse, he was a person of deep prayer who chose to serve God in multiple ways and every dimension of the human person. He was a soldier for Christ in the ‘culture wars’, a priest of sacred mysteries, an apostle of Church governance, a doctor of Catholic teaching, a martyr of the corrupted Victorian legal system. Some have compared his prison journal to Thérèse’s Autobiography of a Soul. And like her, he was unafraid to carry out the most heroic deeds for Christ. Our Gospel tells us that the just Judge, supreme over every civil court, will assess those deeds (Jn 5:24-29): we pray He rewards them with eternal life. 

Word of Thanks after Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell

Today we mark the memorial of Servant of God Eileen O’Connor. If George is with her now, they will look an amusing pair: Eileen was only 3’9” and George was 6’4”! But they both worked to build up the Church of Sydney and beyond. After Mass we will proceed to the Cardinal’s grave to commend him to the God he served so well. Amidst the list of achievements on his gravestone, we will see his coat of arms with his motto Be not afraid! At the bottom is the maxim, found also on Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s tomb, Christum et ecclesiam vehementer dilexit: He loved Christ and the Church vehemently. These lines capture well the man, and we thank him for his courage and his vehement love.

My gratitude to all who have participated in today’s act of worship and intercession for Cardinal Pell. As we entrust him once more to our merciful Father, we hear once more Christ’s encouraging counsel and George’s: Be not afraid!

[1] John Paul II, Address Ubi et Orbi on his election as Pontiff, 22 October 1978.

[2] Mt 8:26,50; 10:26-31; 14:26-27; 17:6-7; 24:6; Mk 4:40; 5:36; 6:50; 13:7; Lk 5:10; 12:4-7,32; 21:9; Jn 6:20; 12:15; 14:1,27; Cf. Dt 3:22; 31:6; Josh 1:9; Ps 23:4; 27:1; 34:4; 56:3-4; 91; 118:6; Isa 35:4; 41:10,13; Mt 1:20; 28:4-5,8-10; Lk 1:12-13,30,74; 2:9-10; Acts 18:9; 27:24; Rom 8:15,38-39; 2Thes 2:2; Phil 4:6-7; Heb 13:6; 2Tim 1:7; 1Jn 4:18; 1Pet 3:14; 5:7; Rev 1:17; 2:10.

[3] George Pell, “The architecture of freedom” in God and Caesar: Selected essays on Religion, Politics and Society (ed. M.A Casey, Connor Court Publishing, 2007), 51.

[4] Christopher Tollefsen, “Natural law, basic goods and practical reason,” in The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Jurisprudence, (eds. George Duke and Robert P. George, CUP, 2017), 133–58.

[5] See for example his 2008 commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College

[6] Rohan Salmond, “Cardinal George Pell will be remembered as a reformer with ‘a big heart’ by some but reviled by many others,” ABS Religion and ethics Report 14 January 2023; Marilyn Rodrigues, “Cardinal Pell’s friends and colleagues recall his kindness and devotion,” The Catholic Weekly 11 January 20223


[8] The dicasteries for Bishops, Divine Worship, Doctrine of the Faith, Evangelisation of Peoples, the Family, Healthcare, Justice and Peace, Migrants, the New Evangelisation, Pontifical Mission Societies, and Vox Clara.

[9] St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (ed. John Clarke, 3rd ed., ICS Publications, 1996), p. 192.

8 thoughts on “‘Be Not Afraid’: In Memory of George Pell

  • STD says:

    Ballsy, is a word that comes to mind; of which the Cardinal has no peer, excepting of course his boss;Our Lord- not in business , definitely not in the banking or the corporate world and only ever a rare glimpse in the political sphere such as Tony Abbott’s calling out of climate change as crap – which more correctly should have and been called out as political graft- crap. Of which being the truth the Cardinal and George Pell the man would have wryly smiled; no doubt.
    The priesthood is definitely not for ninnies. Men like him are extremely rare and this type of valour, the valour of the VC’s only graces humankind’s sense of self preservation-moral sense of direction every now and again. Think of the duty of a Monash, a Weary Dunlop, BA Santamaria and the statesmanship of Menzies and the intellect, forthrightness and honesty of TB Lynch. Rare indeed.
    I would like to use the spoken words of Fulton Sheen to bring our attention to what Mother Teresa, Mother Mary McKillop, Cardinal Pell and the other great and real men know in their bones.
    “What will faith do for you”?
    “ It will preserve your freedom. You still live in a world in which you are free to ask questions. Unless you build up some resistance to the organised propaganda that is more and more falling into the hands of pinks and reds, you will become the prey of their law and their authority whose very end is the extinction of your liberty”.
    “Our blessed Lord said, “the truth will make you free.” Turning his words around, they mean if you do not know the truth, you will be enslaved. If you do not know the truth about addition(+)and subtraction(-), you will not be free to do your bookkeeping; if you do not know that zebras have stripes, you will not be free to draw them. If you do not know the truth of the nature of man, you will not be free to act as a man.”
    “Faith will answer the principle problems of your life: Why? Whence? Whither? If you are without faith you are like a man who has lost his memory and is locked in a dark room waiting for his memory to come back. There are a hundred things you can do: scribble on wallpaper, cut your initials on the floor, and paint the ceiling. But if you are ever to find out why you are there, and where you are going, you will have to enlarge your world beyond space and time. There is a door out of that room. Your reason can find it. But your reason cannot create the light that floods the room, nor the new world in which you move, which is full of signs on the roadway to the City of Peace and eternal Beatitude with God.”
    “Faith will enlarge your knowledge, for there are many truths beyond the power of reason. You can look at a painting and from it learn something of the technique of the artist, his skill and his power; but you could look at it from now to the crack (power) of doom and you could never know the inner most thoughts of the artist. If you were to know them, he would have to reveal them to you. In like manner you can know something of the power and wisdom of God by looking at His universe, but you could never know his thoughts and life unless He told them. His telling of his inner life is what is called Revelation.” ( I believe it is the valour of Christ in the Cardinal, and the VC’s that reveals a real inner strength and life, that reveals to all of us the harder way is the proper way, a little way ,this way, if you like love- have you ever felt hungry looked at a lemon and wanted to eat it ?- satiate a desire for hunger).
    “Why should we go on saying; “I am the only judge; I am the only standard of truth.” These statements remind one of the tourist who, passing through one of the galleries of Florence, remarked to the guide: “ I don’t think much of these pictures.” To which the guide answered: [(This station)] These “”pictures”” are not here for your judgement; they are your judges.” So, too your rejection of the truths beyond reason are the judge of your humility, your love of truth, and your knowledge.”

    “ Faith will preserve your quality.”

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    In the aftermath the Catholic Church has emerged more honest viable and safe..
    Catholic schools and churches are the safest places for our children, anyone, even the humble chorister or reader has to undergo training and police checks to maintain such positions.
    The Wood Royal Commission in NSW cleaned out the police corruption including paedophilia and published its final report 15 th May 1997.
    Police activities in Victoria, at that time and later ,however, were never brought to any conclusion, leading to the recent decision by the Victorian DPP not to investigate or prosecute leading police in the lawyer X abuse of process and justice.
    The grounds were insufficient evidence, despite a thick researched dossier and an efflux of time less than triggered the prosecution of Pell, where there was nil corroborated evidence.
    Such double standards bring some aspects of the Victorian justice system into disrepute.
    George Pell always was on the side of the homeless and mentally ill.
    Despite the ‘big heart’ he never wore it on his sleeve.
    This is why he was quickly judged as innocent on the streets of Sydney.
    One of the expert witnesses in the Wood RC , set up by corrupt police to spot honest police masquerading as candidates for paedophile services, gave Pell the all clear, Pell was not the type.
    That was better evidence that any Witness J could ever give, with his evasive and shape shifting narrative.
    Reading Quadrant and otherwise following the cases in the MSM was a cathartic experience.
    A sort of parallel universe.
    One of The Australian’s lead writers, John Ferguson, was quite sure George Pell would not hear the broadcast of his High Court Judgement, because he had no TV and was in isolation.
    Talk about creative writing without context.
    The ABC with its dark music and allegations set the pace.
    Speaking to a home care lady I asked her if he did ‘it’.
    Her answer was ‘of course, those people always do’.
    The national broadcaster did its best to destroy Pell.
    There still remains that little matter of the two big ones paid into Australia by the Vatican.
    Looking up the company that received it at the time ,it appeared to be one that allowed the enhancement of campaigns in marketing.
    You know the stuff, influencers, realistic looking open people with conviction and passion.
    They dominated twitter.
    The use of words that drive the marketing experience and promote openness to new ideas, products, services and truths where they support and define narrative.
    The company spun this department to a Canadian corporation.
    Specific questions.
    Who paid for the large painting of Pell and Abbot on the streets of Sydney?
    Why has there been no trace of the actual use of the money, you know, receipts, invoices, that sort of thing?
    The paradox remains that despite the enormous efforts by some to destroy Pell’s name and that of anyone who called themselves catholic, the Church has emerged in a better state, particularly with self confidence.
    His mission remains unfinished.
    Clean up Peters Pence and put in competent people to run the Vatican finances.
    Follow the money that made it to Australia.
    Tell the praying, paying faithful.


  • colin_jory says:

    I cannot imagine that any compact characterisation and appreciation of Cardinal Pell could be more appropriate than Archbishop Fisher’s. I hope it will be sent to all Australian priests, as an inspiration and encouragement for them.

    My memory of George Pell go back to 1958, when I was an 11-year-old boarder at St Patrick’s College Ballarat and he was a Year 12 day-boy — and even then a mighty presence.

  • Brian Boru says:

    The Pell trial and appeal was an absolute outrage. A travesty of justice whereby the fundamental element of our justice system of the criminal standard of proof was turned around. The judgement of the incompetent Ferguson and Maxwell was breath takingly bizarre.
    We saw the true mettle of the man as he stoically endured his unjust imprisonment. We rejoiced when the High Court unanimously reversed the miscarriage.
    However, against the shining light of George, let us not lose sight of a problem within the Catholic Church which remains. The requirement of celibacy is a cause of much of the troubles that have occurred. Whilst I applaud those clergy who embrace the struggle of celibacy as part of their vocation, it is not a natural way of life.
    I have known a priest who was forced to give up his ministry because of his natural love of a good woman. He was still a priest, remained within the Church but could not serve although he wanted.. Meanwhile the local remaining priests are having to minister to what where previously two or three parishes.
    Consider what a lonely life it must be for the celibate priest. He spends his days comforting his flock only to have to return to an empty house with no love for him. It is no wonder that vocations are falling.

  • norsaint says:

    Where was Fisher whilst Pell was being persecuted and incarcerated? I can remember only wishy washy prevaricating from our Catholic prelates at the time. Indeed, the Melbourne man said he “believed both Pell and his accuser”!
    Too little, too late.

  • DougD says:

    For me, nothing shows the anti-Catholic bias of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse as clearly as its Final Report in Case Study 28 involving the Ballarat Diocese. The Commission said the purpose of that case study was to inquire into the response of both the Diocese and Victoria Police to allegations of child sexual abuse against clergy of that Diocese. The Commission made a full inquiry into the clergy but skated over much of the conduct of the police.
    Ballarat priest Father Gerald Ridsdale was probably the worst of the many paedophile priests in Victoria. The Commission reported that Mulkearns learned of Ridsdale’s misconduct in 1976 from a Bendigo detective acting on instructions from the police Child Exploitation Squad. Mulkearns took no action other than to require Ridsdale to have treatment for his paedophilia and then to move Ridsdale from parish to parish as he continued to offend between 1976 and 1992, when police finally charged him.
    The Commission excoriated Bishop Mulkearns for failing to take action to stop Ridsdale’s continued abuse of children between 1976 and 1992. It said nothing about the same failure by Victoria Police even though the Bendigo detective said in 1976 that the police would not be pressing charges though they thought Ridsdale was guilty because was having the therapy the bishop ordered him to have.

    • Daffy says:

      The RC was a crass demonstration of the failure of government to govern. Governments for decades out-sourced law enforcement and the justice system to organizations neither equipped nor structured for those roles. Police, the courts, parliaments sat on their hands, and instead of enthusiastically governing for the vulnerable, they cooled their collective heels, hoping the church and its schools would be able to step up. Not so.. Now, imagine if there had been government appointed inspectors of residential institutions ( boarding schools); inspectors who were un-buyable, who were steel-nosed like some WorkCover inspectors are and followed every scent of suspicion to someone who could be charged with the relevant crime (battery, sexual abuse, assault). Imagine if every cop who came across a suspicion of offending was supported by his seniors to investigate, charge where necessary and put before the courts grubs like Ridsdale…imagine if junior clergy, parents, teachers were confident their complaints would be investigated and the weight of the law would descend like a ton of bricks on reported abusers, the courts sending the guilty for long stretches in clink…imagine (and nick off Lennon, its not about you!).

      • Occidental says:

        Institutions such as government, courts ,and parliaments can hardly be expected to safeguard the personal safety of the vulnerable such as children.The police of course, are charged with investigating reported crime, but unfortunately for a range of reasons, all related to human nature, have a fairly woeful record of doing so. In the end, the protection of children falls on individuals, parents, relatives, teachers, house masters, and even friends and fellow children. That so many report being preyed upon is a comment on us all. Whenever I hear a call for more government inspectors I shudder. It gives an excuse for more people to rely on government daily to play the role we as indivuals should be doing. Of course in the end some inspectors do their job, most get bored or tired, and ordinary people think a solution has been found and have a further excuse for not playing a role themselves.

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