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Just ten days after the death of Pope Benedict XVI on New Year's Eve 2022, we were shocked by the news that Cardinal Pell, too, had preceded us into the house of the heavenly father. In the midst of the current battle for the “truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14), the pilgrim church has lost two outstanding representatives of its apostolic doctrine. We grieve for them, but for those of us who believe with St. Augustine “that the Church advances safely on her pilgrimage between the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,” we thank divine providence for having given us both Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell as role models of the true faith, and as powerful advocates with the father.

As billions and billions of people come and go over the course of generations, it may seem doubtful whether any individual has lasting importance. Those doubts are easily dispelled when we examine God's plan of salvation. God wants “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth through the only mediator between God and men: the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:4). As we look forward in the hope of eternal life to come, we know from the outset that “God chose us in Christ before the world was made, to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons” (Eph. 1:4). He called us by our names so that we could be counted as children of God and actually be so in nature and grace. Moreover, he has made us co-workers in his universal plan of salvation. He enables us to participate in the actualization of his kingdom in this world and in the hearts of people. This is achieved through the specific grace given to each one of us according to the measure God has assigned to us.

One of these beloved sons whom God has called by his name is our brother George Pell. Born into a Christian family on June 8, 1941, he grew up in the Australian state of Victoria. With his athletic abilities and intellectual talent, which became apparent during his school days, a brilliant career in the world would have been open to him. But he decided to follow Christ's call to the priestly service, which requires dedication and a willingness to sacrifice. He crowned his studies at the world-famous Oxford, of which he was always very proud, with a dissertation. Its title is “The Exercise of Authority in Early Christianity from about 170 to 270.” The young Fr. Pell’s research included a study of Irenaeus of Lyons, whom Pope Francis has declared to be a Doctor Ecclesiae. This greatest theologian of the second century established the valid hermeneutics of the Catholic faith, distinguishing them from gnosticism and other heresies for all time. He taught that the one Revelation of God in Christ has been handed down to us completely and unchangeably in the Church through Holy Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the normative witness of the bishops in the Apostolic Succession. The teaching of the apostles can neither be expanded speculatively nor adapted in liturgical and pastoral practice to the changing spirit of the times—nor sacrificed to the political and diplomatic constraints of church politics.

With great boldness before the thrones of power and money, not to mention the arrogance of pseudo-intellectuals, Cardinal Pell faithfully, and selflessly, served the Church in Australia as a priest, and then as bishop of Melbourne and Sydney. And finally, on October 21, 2003, John Paul II created him cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. He was given special responsibility in the Roman Curia by Pope Francis, who appointed him to the new Council of Cardinals and made him prefect of the Vatican's Economic Council. Personally, I remember well his commitment to marriage and family in the spirit of Christ's teachings—against their relativization by secular-minded participants at the synod on this topic.

But the enemy does not sleep. In the case of faithful servant George Pell, Jesus's words were proved shockingly true: “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you . . . they will do all this to you for my name's sake; for they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:20). While Archbishop George Pell cared for victims of sexual abuse in an exemplary and compassionate manner during his time in Australia, he was relentlessly pursued by a bloodthirsty mob and anti-Catholic agitators in the media and government. He was wrongfully convicted and held in solitary confinement for 404 days, until he was finally released from prison by the High Court of Australia in a historic vote of 7 to 0.

With his three-volume Prison Journal he has given us a great testimony of Christian patience in the midst of unjust suffering. According to patristic standards, his trials would have placed him, even during his lifetime, among the ranks of the confessors who immediately follow the martyrs in the communion of saints. Prison Journal is, to my mind, of comparable literary value to Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, written in the dungeon of the Gothic king Theodoric. I also think of the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing letters from his jail cell, where he was imprisoned by the atheist German Nazi government. The persecution of Cardinal Pell is the same persecution of Christians that recurs throughout history in different guises.

If you are looking for consolation in the distress of our time and want to assure yourself of Christ's word—“Do not be afraid, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33)—then, in addition to Prison Journal, you should read Pell's last essay in the Festschrift. Its title is telling: “The Suffering Church in a Suffering World.” Cardinal Pell’s article concludes with a memory of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “who declared he was a pagan at the age of twelve, an agnostic at sixteen, became an Anglican at marriage, and was received into the Church in 1922 at the age of 48.” 

Cardinal Pell continues, 

In his best-known book Orthodoxy (1908), he writes of the “thrilling romance of orthodoxy.” For him, it is easy to be a heretic, easy to let the age have its head. To have fallen into “any of these open traps of error and exaggeration” would indeed have been simple. “But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

Pell himself, near the end of his life and work in the vineyard of the Lord, adds, “After eighty years of Catholic living, this is my vision.”

On January 10, 2023, here in Rome, the Lord told his faithful servant George Pell: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant, come and join in your master’s happiness.”

May he rest in peace.

This essay was originally delivered as a homily at an anniversary Mass for Cardinal Pell in Rome. 

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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