In March 2019, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, emeritus archbishop of Caracas, entered my office and saw above my desk a portrait of Cardinal George Pell. (It hangs beside one of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.) Pell had been incarcerated a few weeks previously after a wrongful conviction on sexual misconduct charges.
He stopped short, as if surprised to see the portrait hanging there after the subject had been convicted in one of the Church’s most notorious sex abuse cases. He looked at it impassively for a long time in silence. It became a bit uncomfortable in the room as I waited for him to say something.
Cardinal Urosa slowly turned, fixed his eyes upon me, pointed his finger, and said in a grave voice, “Do not remove that picture—no matter who tells you!”
I had no intention of removing it. And no one has told me to do so. I would not have removed it in that case anyway. It was a gift from my 2007 visit to Sydney in preparation for World Youth Day. It had become a portrait of a white martyr.
I took the portrait down so that Cardinal Urosa could see the inscription more clearly: “Raymond, Be not afraid! Every blessing to you and your flock. +George Cardinal Pell, Feast of St. John Fisher, 22/06/07.”
When he saw the name of St. John Fisher, Cardinal Urosa smiled with understanding and agreement. He was visiting Kingston, Ontario, as our guest at the annual St. John Fisher Dinner. The first guest to address the dinner was Cardinal Pell in 2008, who spoke with admiration and erudition about the cardinal that Henry VIII unjustly imprisoned. Now the cardinal in the portrait was giving us both inspiration from his own solitary confinement.
Cardinal Urosa recognized what I knew from over twenty years of conversation with Cardinal Pell. Far from a criminal, Pell was a courageous pastor who was falsely accused precisely because of his unwillingness to compromise on the truths of the Catholic faith. He was, in his person, a “sign of the times,” to quote the dominical phrase employed by St. John XXIII regarding Vatican II.
Cardinal Pell turns eighty today. It means the formal end of all his official duties, including that of voting in the next conclave. His five years as prefect of the Vatican’s economic oversight department expired while he was facing trial in Australia. Nearly seventy-eight at the time, he was not reappointed.
Now Pell’s voice is resounding through the publication of his Prison Journal, the first two volumes of which have been released. The third is forthcoming. It offers insight into how he prays, where he finds spiritual enrichment—he watched Joel Osteen’s television ministry in prison and found it of benefit—and what it means to offer up one’s sufferings for the good of souls.
Pell’s prison meditations on St. John Fisher and, inter alia, the Prophet Elijah, show that he knows well that defense of religious truth can be a solitary path. It was not a solitary path for Cardinal Pell, as he had widespread support the world over, as any fair-minded person could see that Pell was the victim of unscrupulous prosecution and police misconduct. Pell received over four thousand letters in a 404-day prison stay.
Cardinal Pell was not alone, despite being kept in solitary confinement—for his own safety—for more than a year, denied the opportunity to offer the Holy Mass entirely. Yet his witness, the unexpected crown of a distinguished life of ecclesial service, will prepare others who will be unjustly deprived for their fidelity to what he calls “Gospel Christianity”—the faith delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
Long before Cardinal Pell faced his accusers with equanimity and grace—both natural and supernatural—he was an inspiration to many like me. He was one of the great lieutenants of the John Paul/Ratzinger years, a rough equivalent Down Under of Cardinal John O’Connor.
Pell kept a picture of O’Connor in his office and had invited the New York cardinal to Melbourne to dedicate a new altar in the cathedral—also called St. Patrick’s. (He would outdo himself in Sydney, where he had Pope Benedict XVI consecrate the new altar.)
At eighty, Pell’s legacy is vast. He reinvigorated the two leading archdioceses of Australia, Melbourne and Sydney, hosted a massively successful World Youth Day in 2008, led the commission that produced a more faithful and elegant translation of the Roman Missal in English, and spearheaded the Vatican’s financial reforms.
That impact will be magnified by those whom he personally influenced, whether through friendship at close quarters or inspiring them from a distance. Likely the most consequential Australian Catholic since Dr. Daniel Mannix, archbishop of Melbourne for forty-six years, and the intellectual and political actor B. A. Santamaria, Cardinal Pell became one of the most important churchmen anywhere in the early years of the third millennium.
His portrait is hanging proudly in my office. And it is a blessing for me to explain to my students who he is and why they should admire him, as I do.
Be not afraid, indeed. Ad multos annos, Cardinal Pell!
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.