Along with all of the other inaccuracies in the mainstream media’s assault on George Pell, there has been his widespread depiction as a stern, taciturn individual with ice in his veins and a steel pump for a heart, unable to be pierced by the tiniest amount of sympathy or empathy for the victims of clerical sexual abuse. Anyone with even the briefest acquaintance of the man remains puzzled by this view as his deep passion for the Church and love of humanity are obvious, along with a lively sense of humour.
All are to the fore in the outstanding Week 24 chapter of his Prison Diary, which begins with a fine joke related by his cousin and friend Chris Meney, a supporter of the Melbourne Football Club: Chris’ daughter suggests to her father that he arrange for six Melbourne players to carry the coffin at his funeral, Pell writes. “Why?” Chris asked innocently. “So they can let you down for the last time”, his loving daughter responded. There is no doubting where Pell’s football sympathies lie, as the success of Richmond, for whom he once played in the Reserves, helps him greatly to pass his time in solitary confinement. It is a loyalty not reciprocated by the club, which removed him as its vice-patron.
Along with stories of the “bangers” in nearby cells who often disrupt his sleep, Pell relates the everyday inconveniences of prison life: random searches of his cell for drugs or contraband, strip searches and difficulties in obtaining a warm pastie with tomato sauce, the only culinary highlight of his stay.
Anne Henderson: The Cardinal’s Way of the Cross
Pell begins each Sunday with a review of the religious programming he is able to view on prison TV, this includes the 6:00 am Catholic Mass for You at Home (when he can figure out how to correctly set the alarm on his watch), followed by the Pentecostal Brian Houston at Hillsong Church in Sydney, US gospel superstar Joseph Prince and then finally Hymns of Praise from the UK. Hymns of Praise inspires an anecdote that possibly only a George Pell could deliver.
Sunday, 4 August 2019
Hymns of Praise came from the ancient headquarters in London of the Order of St John, now known as St John Ambulance. The order was refounded in the nineteenth century, after being suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540, and traces its origins to Gerardo Sasso, born in Scala, Italy, in the eleventh century, who set up the first Christian hospital in Jerusalem after that city was taken by the First Crusade in 1099. The Knights of Malta, of Lazarus, and of St John are all knights “hospitaller”, i.e., they cared for the sick as well as being soldiers. The Knights Templar did not run hospices or hospitals.
Scala is a beautiful small town in the hills behind Amalfi, on the Italian coast south of Naples. It was my titular see while I was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne. St Alphonsus preached his first Redemptorist mission in the crypt of the cathedral there, under a splendid Gothic crucifix.
The most precious possession of the cathedral is a magnificent jewelled mitre donated by the Norman ruler Charles I of Anjou (1226 – 1285), after a narrow escape from disaster off the coast of North Africa. He eventually went on to become King of Jerusalem.
When I made an official visit there in 1988, they asked whether I would like to use the mitre when I celebrated the Sunday Mass during their official welcome. Just before this, I had been invited to wear a mitre that had belonged to Pope Paul VI, but it was much too small. Remembering this, I replied that I would be honoured to do so, but anticipated it wouldn’t fit me. To my immense surprise, it did fit, and I wore it for the Mass. I suspect the mitre had been reconstituted at some stage over the past eight hundred years, when some bishop might have had a large head like mine, which I probably inherited from the Norman Burkes and Fitzgeralds, or during a period when they used wigs. I later saw the mitre again at an exhibition of Norman treasures from Italy held in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. It was from a balcony at this palace that Mussolini addressed his Fascist rallies.
He then adds a Daily Prayer:
God our Father, I thank you for the many blessings I have received during my life, human as well as spiritual. Continue to stay with me in my present circumstances, and help me when I am freed, now or later, to continue to work for the spread of your Kingdom.
Having revealed that his head fits neatly into the 800-year old jewelled mitre at the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo in Scala, Pell moves onto the news that there are now “two shouters and bangers in the unit, and as I write this, the worst of them is performing; or was, as he has just paused. He is seriously aggrieved and disturbed.”
I BECAME familiar with Pell’s deep passion for history as parishioner at St Mary’s Cathedral from 2001 to 2014, where I was lucky to experience his weekly homilies. Each Sunday we would enjoy a trip back to the early days of the church, with perhaps a reference to the times of Caesar Augustus from the writings of Josephus, a tale from Eusebius or proceedings at the Council of Nicaea. Along with other parishioners and the many international visitors to St Mary’s I would occasionally make my way to the back of the Cathedral to shake the great man’s hand and enjoy a brief moment of banter. He was always there to greet us warmly with a ready smile. Like the ‘opportunity witnesses’ who were summarily ignored at his trial, I recall Pell always spending at least 10 to 15 minutes greeting parishioners at the rear of the Cathedral while the choirboys were led away separately to the choir rooms.
The final time that Pell said Mass at St Mary’s was a Sunday in 2014 before departing for Rome. It was the only time I failed to get a warm response after Mass. His Holiness Pope Francis had recently opened a Twitter account so I suggested lightly that he start a blog so we could keep track of him in future. Instant Easter Island! His countenance indicated I had crossed a line and His Eminence was not amused. It was unfortunate, as I meant well. On reflection, I suspect that Pell was aware of the huge task that awaited him rooting out corruption in the Vatican, a job that is still incomplete. He would not have time for blogging. Ultimately, it required his incarceration in solitary confinement for 405 unjust days to deliver the magisterial Prison Diary.
Thursday, 8 August 2019
We celebrate today the feast of Mary of the Cross MacKillop, the first Australian canonised saint. I have always felt that she understands me. I prayed at her tomb before my installation as archbishop of Sydney, seeking her help and intercession; was present at her canonisation in Rome in 2010; and was honoured to be principal concelebrant and homilist at the Thanksgiving Mass next day at the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, the traditional burial place of St Paul and long associated with English speakers. Before the Reformation, the King of England was regularly an honourary canon at the basilica.
St Mary of the Cross was cofounder with Fr Julian Tenison Woods of the Josephite Sisters, who contributed massively to Catholic education, especially for the poor kids in country areas. They were a blessed force for the faith and human development.
Pell’s reflections on the contribution of the Josephite nuns does not include any reference to their role in the education of Louise Milligan, leading the pack of lapsed Catholic women that drove his persecution.
Wonder what Mother Mary MacKillop would make of this palaver. I can’t see the decent, salt of the earth Josephite sisters who taught me liking any of this one little bit.
— Louise Milligan (@Milliganreports) October 19, 2020
In Week 24, Pell still hopes for his acquittal by the Victorian Court of Appeal, and the reader’s knowledge that his hopes will soon be dashed lends a note of poignancy to reading the diary.
I recall a conversation with a former schoolmate who described Pell as “a redneck” I was surprised by this appellation and should have pointed out that Pell has a PhD in early church history from the University of Oxford. But as is typical Catholic behaviour at parties I demurred so as not to create a scene. Another theme that recurred constantly in His Eminence’ homilies during his time at St Mary’s Cathedral was a cry for Catholics to lay witness to their faith by simple acts such as displaying a Crucifix at home and declaring their religion to friends and colleagues. In his Diary, Pell also decries the absence of any reference to the Christian basis of objections to the Culture of Death and the increasing pressure to roll back restrictions on abortion and euthanasia.
Wednesday, 7 August 2019
For as long as I have been a priest, we, too, kept God out of the debate. We have not had many wins, and the momentum now is against us. For God’s sake, we should bring him back into the discussion, as more than 50 percent of Australians are Christians as well as other monotheists. “God wills it” was the battle cry of the Crusaders. Being silent about God helps those who want to exclude religious discussion from the public square.
Those who kill, take innocent life, should be reminded that this is against God’s teaching. This won’t convince too many of our embittered opponents, although truth can be disconcerting. But many people are confused, under pressure, doing the wrong thing reluctantly. Godly truth would help. There is too much silence about God in the Catholic Church in Australia and not just in the areas of life and marriage. Do we have enough faith to be embarrassed by our silence? I remain intrigued by the claim that Australian Catholic tourists overseas fall silent when visiting a mosque but continue to chatter in churches.
While reading the Prison Journal, it is easy to forget that Pell is spending 23 hours a day locked in a tiny, windowless cell. His visits to the exercise yard and the occasional glimpse of blue sky and the sound of a chirruping bird in the distance provide welcome relief, as does the television set in his cell.
Pell’s contrarian views on climate change, along with his unabashed social and political conservatism, have driven much of his vilification by the progressive intelligentsia that rule much of the media and academia. Those able to see beyond the jaundiced view of our cultural gatekeepers can delight in the insights of a remarkable priest, one whose faith and learning can take the simple act of watching a football game and use it as a launchpad for a dizzying reflection on the beauty and mystery of Divine creation.
Saturday, 10 August 2019
Last night in Canberra during the AFL game between Hawthorn and Great Western Sydney, it snowed for the first time during an AFL game. I took a foolish and perverse delight in this widespread snow as SBS television had been proclaiming for days that this was the warmest year in history (although it’s not yet December), and I am pleased South East Australia is doing its bit to ward off disaster. I know that climate is constituted by thirty years of weather, but the propagandists for the 1.5 trillion dollar climate change juggernaut recognise this only when it suits their argument. The latest Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report is strongly opposed to land clearing and modern farming because they fear that bovine flatulence might pose a bigger threat than the increasing human population.
As I have noted, during the past few weeks I have been watching the ABC series on the planets of our solar system, and this has prompted me to ponder the role of the Creator God.
We use different images for God’s activity such as a small still voice, the dew, the Lamb of God; not the earthquake or the lion or the eagle. But the one true God is the Creator of the universe, and his Son is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all creation, who will set up a new heaven and a new earth when he comes again at the end of time.
Once Western thought had moved beyond the layered image of creation in Genesis, it conceived of the sun as moving around the earth, until Copernicus in the sixteenth century introduced his “revolution”, where the earth circles the sun. It was this issue early in the seventeenth century which got Galileo into trouble with the papal authorities, although Copernicus and his earlier writings were not condemned or disturbed.
So we now know the earth is not the centre of the solar system and the sun is not even the centre of the Milky Way, much less of the universe, which has been expanding in every direction at the speed of light for over fourteen billion years.
We might now have the first evidence from space of a black hole, rather than just a theoretical concept, and we do have evidence of stars colliding, dying red dwarf stars, and the occasional marauding comet. Think of the craters on the moon, some of them named after early Jesuit astronomers.
The universe is vast beyond our imagining, much of it dark and cold, but nearly all of it hostile to life and mysterious, with stars immensely larger than our own, sometimes much, much smaller with unbelievably greater weight and pull.
With the naked eye, we can see very little of all this, but it is there, slowly giving up some of its secrets to us, the only intelligent beings in the universe, living in a beautiful world congenial to life, as the end result of billions of coincidences.
What is God up to with his universe? Why such prodigality and extravagance, which is awe-inspiring when not terrifying; and all of it ruled by the elegant and often simple laws of physics? Does God need all this space and time for the systems he devised to throw up planet earth with its loving, thinking, deciding human agents?
I probably should be more awestruck by human sanctity and heroism, by human genius, by music and poetry and the capacity for self-sacrifice, but the beauties of the earth and of the heavens, both seen and especially the unseen, are awe-inspiring calls to worship.
If I am puzzled by the role of Islam in salvation history (and I am), how much more mysterious is God’s cosmos, the unfathomable universe as the backdrop to the salvation history of the God-among-us, who will come again.
Readers who have enjoyed this small taste of Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal can subscribe to further installments by following this link.