SPECIAL REPORT – Death of Cardinal George Pell: Giant of the Church in Australia passes way suddenly aged 81

12 Jan 2023

By Jamie O'Brien

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell prepares to exchange the sign of peace during the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelisation celebrated by the now deceased Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican 28 October 2012. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

Australian Cardinal George Pell has passed away this week Tuesday 10 January, aged 81.

Sources close to Cardinal Pell told The Record that he had been talking with the anaesthetist in hospital following the procedure when he suddenly went into cardiac arrest, at Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome and passed away shortly before 9 pm local time.

According to the source, Pell’s body will be flown back to Australia following his Vatican funeral, and he will be buried in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, where he served as Archbishop for 13 years before moving to the Vatican.

In addition to being one of the Catholic Church’s tallest prelates, Cardinal Pell was also one of the most influential.

Cardinal George Pell kisses Pope John Paul II’s ring during Mass in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican 22 October, 2003. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters.

In a statement released today as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB said it was with great sadness that he learned of the unexpected death of Cardinal George Pell in Rome on Tuesday evening (Rome time).

“Cardinal Pell provided strong and clear leadership within the Catholic Church in Australia, as Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney and as a member of the Bishops Conference for more than 25 years,” Archbishop Costelloe said.

“His many strengths were widely recognised, both in Australia and around the world, as his Vatican appointments as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and as a member of the Council of Cardinals, an advisory group to Pope Francis,” he said.

Archbishop Costelloe continued by emphasising that Cardinal Pell’s impact on the life of the Church in Australia and around the world will continue to be felt for many years.

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during a meeting at the Vatican 1 October 2013.. Pictured from left are Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, Italian Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Secretary to the Council of Cardinals, Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Pope Francis, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, US Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Australian Cardinal George Pell and Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters.

“As we remember him and reflect on his legacy, I invite all Catholics and other people of goodwill to join in praying for Cardinal Pell, a man of deep and abiding faith, and for the repose of his soul,” Archbishop Costelloe said.

Born in Ballarat in June 1941, Cardinal Pell entered the seminary in Werribee 1960 and was ordained a priest in 1966 in Rome by Cardinal Gregorio Pietro Agagianian.

He quickly became a rising star in the Australian church and went on to have a prominent ecclesial career, being appointed as auxiliary bishop for Melbourne in 1987 and as then as Archbishop in 1996.

In 2001, Cardinal Pell was appointed Archbishop, going on to be made Cardinal in 2003 now St (Pope) John Paul II in 2003, participating in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, who passed away 31 December at the age of 95.

Cardinal George Pell consecrates the Eucharist during the Chrism Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, 28 March 2013. Photo: CNS/Kerry Myers.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, ACBC Vice President, also confirmed Cardinal Pell’s death with “deep sadness”. 

“This news comes as a great shock to all of us,” he said on Facebook.

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pell, for comfort and consolation for his family and for all of those who loved him and are grieving him at this time.”

Shortly after his election in 2013, Pope Francis established a Council of Cardinals advising him on matters of church governance and reform, naming Cardinal Pell as one of the council’s first members and appointing him head of the then-newly established Secretariat for the Economy.

The Vatican’s third most powerful prelate at the time, Cardinal Pell was tasked with reforming the Vatican’s murky finances, which involved putting together balance sheets, conducting audits, and attempting to loosen the powerful Secretariat of State’s grasp on a significant portion of the Holy See’s assets.

Archbishop Emeritus Hickey expressed his grief at the passing of Cardinal Pell, noting he still had a significant contribution to provide to the Church.

Australian bishops, including now Archbishop Emeritus Barry Hickey and Cardinal George Pell, right, look on as the now deceased Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leads the dedication of the chapel of the Domus Australia in Rome 19 October 2011. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

Archbishop Emeritus Barry Hickey said he first met Cardinal Pell when Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne.

“He had no self-doubt about the positions he held and could expand on them very strongly, even to those who disagreed with him,” Archbishop Emeritus Hickey said.

In a statement, former prime minister Tony Abbott said Australia had lost a “great son” who was also a “committed defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a staunch advocate for the virtues of Western Civilisation”.

Cardinal Pell had been seen in public in Rome last week at the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Cardinal George Pell waves as he leaves the opening meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelisation at the Vatican, 8 October 2012. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.
Cardinal George Pell holds a copy of church protocols for dealing with sexual abuse during a 13 November 2012 press conference held in response to the Australian government’s establishment of a royal commission into child sexual abuse in the nation’s institutions, including the Catholic Church. Photo: CNS/Kerry Myers.
Cardinal George Pell makes the sign of a cross on a woman’s forehead during Ash Wednesday Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney 13 February 2013. Photo: CNS/Kerry Myers.
Cardinal George Pell, then Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, is pictured at the Vatican in this 5 August 2014, file photo. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan.
Cardinal George Pell, then Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, motions as he leaves the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican, in this 13 October 2014, file photo. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.