Death of Cardinal George Pell: Giant of the Church in Australia passes away suddenly aged 81

28 Mar 2023

By Jamie O'Brien

Death of Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell leads the World Youth Day opening Mass in Sydney, 15 July, 2008. Photo: Reuters/Daniel Munoz.

Australian Cardinal George Pell passed away 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.

The death of Cardinal Pell was a shock because just five days earlier he had concelebrated the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI and “seemed in good health,” said Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals.

In his homily at Cardinal Pell’s funeral Mass, Saturday 14 January in St Peter’s Basilica, Cardinal Re described the Australian prelate as often being “a strong-willed and decisive protagonist” with “a strong temperament that, at times, could appear harsh.”

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

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney kisses the hand of Pope John Paul II as he receives the document designating his new title during the consistory in St Peter’s Square 21 October 2003. Photo: CNS/Reuters.

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.

“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.

“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.

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

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.

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.

“The last years of his life were marked by an unjust and painful condemnation,” Cardinal Re said, referring to Cardinal Pell’s conviction on charges of sexual abuse and his 404 days in jail before the Australian high court overturned the conviction.

Cardinal Re told mourners at the funeral that the court “exonerated him with a sentence of full innocence, and he was finally able to leave prison.”

Cardinal Pell’s trust in God amid such suffering, Cardinal Re said, is an example of “how to accept even unjust punishments with dignity and inner peace.”

Pope Francis signs a cricket bat of a Canterbury cricket team received from Australian Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican 29 October 2015. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters.

The cardinal’s three-volume “Prison Journal” made clear “how much faith and prayer” helped him, and the books could help others who “suffer unjustly,” Cardinal Re said.

“A man of God and a man of the church, he was characterised by a deep faith and great firmness of doctrine, which he always defended without hesitation and with courage, concerned only with being faithful to Christ,” Cardinal Re said.

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

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.