This funeral is less a sad farewell to a great friend and more a joyous tribute to a great hero. It’s the celebration of a wonderful life, a once-in-a-generation gathering of the people of faith to re-dedicate ourselves to the ideals George Pell lived for, and to draw strength from each other for the struggles ahead.
He was a priest, a bishop and the prefect of a Vatican Secretariat, but he was never a mere functionary. In each of these roles a thinker, a leader, a Christian warrior, and a proud Australian who wanted our country and our civilisation to succeed.
In the pulpit, from the lectern, on TV, in the opinion pages, across the dinner table, after Mass, in the confessional – as everyone here would know – he was always thoughtful, often charismatic, occasionally imperious, constantly concerned for the well-being of others, and a pastoral priest who could find an echo of Christ even in the worst sinner.
In short, he’s the greatest Catholic that Australia has produced and one of our country’s greatest sons. No one else has been both Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney. No other Australian, has been as senior in the leadership of the Roman Church or as influential in its conclaves.
He was instrumental in the foundation of three centres of higher learning: the Australian Catholic University; the University of Notre Dame, here in Australia; and Campion College – perhaps his favourite – named for the Jesuit martyr and our first liberal arts school, dedicated to giving its students a good grounding in the great books and the great debates that have shaped our civilisation and made it man’s finest social and cultural achievement so far.
And far from being an apologist or a dissembler about the sins of the Church – personal, financial or intellectual – he was their hammer. As he knew, eccelesia semper reformanda – ‘the Church is always in need of reform’.
Here in Australia he was the first archbishop to sack misbehaving clergy and report them to the police, rather than hide them in another parish. In Rome he tried to ensure that the collections from the faithful were used for the glory of God, rather than the indulgence of the higher clergy. Most recently, he called a draft Vatican document further eroding the apostolic tradition a “toxic nightmare”. He was never one to mince his words.
To the smug, to the venal, to the lazy, to the wayward and to the intellectually sloppy he was an existential reproach – and because, that’s all of us in some way, it’s hardly surprising that he became a target.
For all his presence and his natural authority, he was personally humble and never fell for the modern conceit that he was bigger than that which had shaped him — faith, church and country.
In his celebrated eulogy for another Catholic hero, BA Santamaria, he declared it was “the mark of the false prophet that all men speak well of him” before observing that Bob “triumphantly avoided this fate”. And so it was, even more, with the Cardinal himself.
His recent observation that the climate change movement had “some of the characteristics of a low level, not-too-demanding pseudo-religion” was the kind of comment that enraged its adherents precisely because it was true. Throughout history that’s what people have been martyred for — for telling the unpopular, unpalatable truth.
It’s not possible to honour the Cardinal without some reference to his persecution.
He was made a scapegoat for the Church itself. He should never have been investigated in the absence of a complaint. He should never have been charged in the absence of corroborating evidence. And he should never have been convicted in the absence of a plausible case – as the High Court so resoundingly made plain.
Had he died in gaol, without the High Court’s vindication, this – today – would have been a very different event, even though his innocence would have been no less had it been known only to God.
Still, the presence of so many here from all walks and stations of life, many not Catholic; some not Christian; a few, without any religious faith at all, is an overdue tribute and perhaps an admission that we should strive to do right in death to those who’ve been wronged in life.
His greatest triumph was not to have held the highest ecclesiastical offices of any Australian but to have kept his faith in circumstances which must have screamed: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” Not to succumb to anger, self-pity or despair – when almost any other human would – and instead to have accepted this modern day crucifixion, walking humbly in the footsteps of Our Lord, that’s the heroic virtue that makes him, to my mind, a saint for our times.
And as I heard the chant, “Cardinal Pell should go to Hell” I thought “Ah-ha!”, at least they now believe in the afterlife! Perhaps this is St George Pell’s first miracle.
Indeed, the ultimately triumphant life of this soldier for truth to advance through smear and doubt to victory should drive a renewal of confidence throughout the universal church.
If character means “to trust yourself when all men doubt you but make allowance for their doubting too”; if it means “bearing to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”, George Pell was the greatest man I’ve ever known.
And if faith means the ability to endure crushing adversity, no one could be a better advertisement for it – especially with those of us for whom it often remains tantalisingly out of reach. As a centurion in the Gospel said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
So I will hold onto him in my heart from love of a friend and mentor; and as a gentle chide for virtues sought but not yet attained. And in these times, when it’s more needful than ever, to fight the good fight, to stay the course and to keep the faith. It’s surely now for the Australian church to trumpet the cause of its greatest champion.
There should be Pell study courses, Pell spirituality courses, Pell lectures, Pell high schools, and Pell university colleges; just as there are for the other saints. If we can direct our prayers to Mother Theresa, Thomas à Beckett and St Augustine, why not the late cardinal too, who’s been just as pleasing to God, I’m sure, and has the added virtue of being the very best of us.
This is the eulogy given by former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, at the funeral of George Cardinal Pell in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on Thursday February 2.