This essay was originally delivered on February 1 as a homily at a memorial Vespers for Cardinal George Pell at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia.
As evening falls, and the sun makes its way toward the Western rim of the Australian continent, the great South Land of the Holy Spirit—the church in Sydney—gathers with us to pray for her bishop as Christians have done since time immemorial. But for us the office of Vespers today is a little different than usual. For 22 days now we have been inundated by plaudits, protests, and pundits surrounding the passing of our cardinal. Though locally this may seem like a tsunami of hatred, it fades to less than a ripple when viewed from the perspective of the global Church. For the vast majority of the worldwide Catholic family, Cardinal George Pell was another Clemens August Graf Von Galen, a lion of the Church, a magnet for vocations, a confessor bishop, a true cardinal priest. And now, at the hour of Vespers, we gather to do for him what Christians have done since the first centuries: to chant the psalms, to listen to the Scriptures, to hear the testimonies of the Church Fathers, and to pray for the repose of his soul.
This evening’s office began with the Dies Irae, commanding us to recall the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Our cardinal did not view these as negative spiritual relics inherited from the medieval period to be feared and supressed, but rather as timely and timeless realities of the Christian faith. Death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Now he too stands before the dread throne, before the Rex Tremendae Maiestatis, but he does so robed in the mantle of a confessor. The inclusion this evening of the Dies Irae, one of the great masterpieces of the Church’s treasury of sacred music, is made even more appropriate by the fact that our cardinal loved, cultivated, and protected the magnificent musical patrimony of this cathedral.
Both Franciscans and Dominicans claim authorship of the Dies Irae. But this evening’s office calls us further back in time than the frivolous squabblings of medieval mendicants. Writing at the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries, Braulio of Saragossa, another confessor bishop, whom we heard from in the second reading this evening, applies a pastoral touch to the Scriptures that for centuries have formed the core of the Roman requiem liturgy. Braulio acknowledges the raw psychological reality of bereavement. Our cardinal is dead. We are grieving. We are going to miss him. His passing is a loss for us, for the Church, for his brother cardinals, for the Holy Father, for the global Catholic community. This evening’s liturgy acknowledges all this. However, Braulio consoles us by reminding us that the grieving process is natural. But for Christians, the blackness of grief is shot through with the power of the Holy Spirit—like the black and silver vestments of old—to bring us the shining hope and consolation that is the Resurrection. Not all tears are evil. The tears we shed for our cardinal can be tears of gratitude and healing, as well as loss.
Braulio and his mentor, St. Isidore of Seville, lived and battled through a profound moment of crisis in the life of the Christian Church in Spain at the turn of the seventh century. With the collapse of Rome and the withdrawal of her legions, the country had been overrun by the barbarian Visigoths, who held Trinitarian Christianity and classical learning equally in contempt. Isidore perceived that the roots of classical culture needed to be preserved in order for the Church to survive. He worked tirelessly to do so and laid the foundations for Catholicism to not only survive but flourish despite the Arab conquest of the eighth century. In Sydney, as we look down to the campus of Notre Dame at Broadway, and over to Campion College, we might observe that our cardinal did exactly the same, although the barbarians he faced were definitively more woke than their more original Visigoth forebears.
While Roman Spain fell quickly to the ravages of the Visigoths, Christian Australia battles on. Our cardinal's tireless witness to the Christian faith resembles that of yet another confessor bishop—St. Basil the Great. In January 381 Gregory of Nazianzus reported the confrontation between Basil and the Roman governor Modestus. When Modestus sought to intimidate Basil with threats of torture and death and imprisonment, Basil responded, “Have you nothing else to threaten me with?” In despair the prefect wrote to the Emperor Valens, stating, “This Christian prelate has defeated us.” I won’t claim that our cardinal was invincible in argument, but he certainly was superior to threats, and he rose above the poison of ecclesial gossip. Like Basil, he was unintimidated by secular power and uncowed by popular opinion, and believed it was the first duty of a bishop to protect and pass on the teachings of Jesus Christ unadulterated and unchanged.
Every day in his chapel during Mass, he named his successors to the sees of Sydney and Melbourne in the Roman Canon, alongside that of the Holy Father. The more rubrically minded among us may have rolled our eyes, but we appreciated his big-hearted intentions. Both his courage and generosity of spirit were well known throughout the Eternal City, and acknowledged even by those who disagreed with him.
The line of the Roman Church’s confessor bishops stretches all the way from Irenaeus, Cyprian, Basil, Gregory, and Augustine to the present day, and now our cardinal takes his place upon that shining arc. Shortly after our cardinal's return to the Vatican, on October 12, 2020, Pope Francis called us to a private audience. As we made our way through the salons of the Apostolic Palace all the way to the antechamber of the papal study, the greeting “ben tornato Eminenza” could be heard over and over again: “Welcome back, Eminence.” Our cardinal was held in enormous esteem and affection by the Pontifical Swiss Guard, who saw in him a reflection of their own oath to serve and protect—several guards told me so, including those on guard the morning of his Requiem Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Before entering the papal study to meet Pope Francis, in a scene that will remain with me to the end of my days, Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, regent of the papal household, stepped out to greet us and to lead us in. Suddenly, however, he paused, dropped to both knees in front of the cardinal, took his hand, kissed it, and said, “Welcome, welcome confessor of our Church.” Today, we who mourn his passing confidently hope and pray that three weeks ago, as our cardinal drew his last breath, he heard the voice of his Lord say, “Welcome, confessor of my Church.”
Rev. Joseph Hamilton is priest-secretary to the late Cardinal George Pell.
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