CARDINAL PELL: Lion of the Church in Australia laid to rest

09 Feb 2023

By Contributor

By Adam Wesselinoff, Debbie Cramsie and Marilyn Rodrigues

A blur of white robes demonstrates priests and bishops processing into Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral for the funeral and burial Mass of Cardinal George Pell. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

The Catholic Church of Australia has last week Thursday 2 February farewelled Cardinal George Pell, in a funeral at times solemn, reverent, defiant and sorrowful, shot through with wry Australian humour, and attended by mourners from all walks of life.

The Cardinal remained a sign of contradiction until the very end, with protesters’ shouts of “George Pell, go to Hell” clearly audible inside St Mary’s Cathedral at several points, and the congregation bursting into spontaneous applause and shouts of “hear, hear” during the homily and eulogies.

After the 2 February Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial at Australia’s mother church, the Cardinal’s remains were interred in the cathedral crypt alongside his predecessors.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher blesses the coffin of Cardinal George Pell during the Cardinal’s funeral and burial Mass, Thursday 2 February at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

In his homily for the occasion, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP described the cardinal as a “lion of the Church”, a “giant of a man with a big vision” who proclaimed the Gospel “shamelessly, vehemently, courageously to the end”.

“He had a big heart, too, strong enough to fight for the faith and endure persecution, but soft enough to care for priests, youth, the homeless, prisoners and imperfect Christians,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“Ultimately that heart gave out, but only after more than 80 years of being gradually conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher incenses the coffin of Cardinal George Pell during the Cardinal’s funeral and burial Mass, Thursday 2 February at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

Cardinal Pell’s brother, David Pell, gave the principal eulogy, describing him as “a prince of the Church, a good and holy man, and a proud Australian”.

Mr Pell told mourners about the toll “the relentless campaign to smear George’s life” had taken on his family, and spoke for a final time in his brother’s defence, saying his “regularly reported lack of sympathy for victims is simply untrue”.

“We sympathise with the legitimate victims and are in complete abhorrence at the criminals. Our own family has not been immune to this evil,” he said.

Cardinal Pell’s brother, David Pell, gave the principal eulogy, describing him as “a prince of the Church, a good and holy man, and a proud Australian”. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

Mr Pell also spoke at length about his brother’s 404 days of solitary confinement and eventual acquittal, praising both the guards and prisoners at Barwon Remand Centre for the humane and dignified way they treated his brother.

“By the time George and his team found 1.2 billion Euro that was not accounted for, his fate was sealed,” Mr Pell said.

He insisted his brother was a “friend of Pope Francis” who had been given a warm welcome and an entourage of Swiss Guards by the Pope upon his return to Rome.

“A current Australian bishop, when discussing George with the Holy Father, was prodded in the chest by the Pope, who said: ‘He’s an honest man.’” Mr Pell said.

Some 30 bishops, 220 priests and dozens of seminarians were in attendance, including, from left, Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous, Canberra-Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse, Melkite Bishop Robert Rabbat, Adelaide Archbishop Patrick O’Reagan, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio to Australia. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

The service lasted nearly four hours providing ample time for the lay clerks of St Mary’s to perform a stunning musical setting selected with particular regard for Cardinal Pell’s support of sacred music.

Esteemed Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan composed an offertory motet especially for the Cardinal’s funeral, based on the text of Wisdom 3:1-4 and the Cardinal’s motto, “Be not afraid.”

The long service, sweltering Sydney summer heat and humidity did little to deter mourners and supporters of the Cardinal, who filled St Mary’s to capacity, with around 2000 braving the heat in the Cathedral forecourt from as early as 7.30am to try to score a seat inside.

Some 30 bishops, 220 priests and dozens of seminarians were in attendance, including Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, one of the Cardinal’s staunchest public advocates during his ordeal, and Fr Joseph Hamilton, the Cardinal’s most recent secretary.

The Cardinal’s brother David and his wife Judith were accompanied by their children and grandchildren, relatives and friends.  

In scenes not seen in Australia since World Youth Day Sydney in 2008, priests and bishops left the Cathedral to distribute communion to thousands of Catholics from all walks of who filled the forecourt.

The congregation included dozens of women religious from the Sisters of Charity, Dominicans, Sisters of Mercy and other orders supported by the Cardinal; men and women from David’s Place, a Sydney-based community for homeless and marginalised people; leading theologians, educators and heads of Catholic agencies; young families and expectant mothers; Indigenous Australians, Catholics of Irish and English stock and recent migrants from the Lebanese, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese and other communities that have become the backbone of the Sydney Church.

The Federal Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, attended to farewell the Cardinal in person.

In his own eulogy to his mate, mentor and spiritual father, Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott called Cardinal Pell “the greatest Catholic Australia has ever produced, and one of our country’s greatest sons”. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

In his own eulogy to his mate, mentor and spiritual father, Mr Abbott called Cardinal Pell “the greatest Catholic Australia has ever produced, and one of our country’s greatest sons”.

He said the Cardinal was made a scapegoat for the Church and should never have been investigated, let alone convicted.

“Had he died in jail, 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,” he said.

Mr Abbott also called the Cardinal “a saint for our times”, and joked that he was already working miracles.

“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,” Mr Abbott said.

Despite widespread negative media coverage and a tense atmosphere in the lead-up to the service, the planned protest did not disrupt proceedings.

Catholics travelled from around Australia to pay tribute to the Cardinal, share memories and reflect on the Church.

Cardinal Pell’s family embrace Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher following the lowering of the coffin into the crypt, Thursday 2 February at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Giovanni Portelli.

Adam Wesselinoff, Debbie Cramsie and Marilyn Rodrigues write for The Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia.