PROFILE: by Professor Anthony Fisher OPNews Weekly
Dr George Pell: Australia's leading churchman
, January 11, 2003
Professor Anthony Fisher OP gave an extremely perceptive appraisal of Dr Pell's role in Australia at the launch of Tess Livingstone's recently published book,
George Pell (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002) at the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne, on October 30, 2002.
Professor Fisher is Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, in Melbourne.The ABC National's Encounter program (October 23, 2002) broadcast a lecture called "God and life in modern religious thought" given recently in Tess Livingstone's city of Brisbane by Cambridge theologian and cleric, Don Cupitt.
Cuppitt's line was that organised religion is dead and with it the God of religions with their dualisms between Creator and creation, God and man, this life and the next. Life, here and now, is all there is: the new paradigm for Western spirituality is to be a "solar ethic", modelled on the sun, which simply burns itself out in living for the moment, never longing for anything else, never looking to any other time or person for inspiration.
The Church of the future, he predicts, will have "no orthodoxy, no organisation, no hierarchy", it will be "simply a free experimental religious society in which people can let their hair down and think what they really think".
Happily not every voice hailing from Brisbane at the moment is quite so "solar". Tonight we celebrate a rather different vision of Faith and Church, as told in the life of a great churchman and in the ink of an excellent Brisbane biographer. Most of us will never have a biography written of us, except that most important one recorded in the Book of Life. A few here will perhaps have a printed record distributed after they've died or not long before. Rare indeed is it for a man of 61, just entering his prime, to have already had a life worthy of a biography. Tess Livingstone has demonstrated that George Pell is such a man.
After a decade as a political reporter and newspaper chief of staff, now as editor of the opinion page of Brisbane's Courier Mail
, Tess has devoted enormous research time and energy to producing a volume which does justice to her subject. The picture she paints is of a Renaissance man. He is a son of that re-birth of the Catholic Church which was heralded by the Second Vatican Council and enacted by Pope John Paul II. And he is a father of what many hope will be the re-birth of the Catholic Church in this country and the new evangelisation of our culture.
Pope John Paul II talks of the apocalyptic struggle for minds and hearts - for souls - between "the civilization of life and love" and "the culture of lies and death". The George Pell of this book has brought his considerable natural and supernatural gifts to that struggle: as priest and pastor, scholar and lecturer, popular writer and catechist, educational administrator and seminary rector, Vatican official, social justice advocate, statesman and, by the way, Archbishop twice over.
It is an extraordinary catalogue of achievements and therefore quite a task to fit together. Livingstone has, I believe, done that. She casts light on a diamond with far more surfaces than the caricatures of Pell's critics and Livingstone's press colleagues would allow.
She begins with the story of Pell's origins. Mixing acid and base produces a powerful reaction. A boxer-cum-publican of English ancestry married a pious Catholic woman of Irish descent from the opposite side of politics. Add an Aunt named "Mannix", a fiercely loyal sister Margaret, a younger brother David, and in due course more relatives and friends, and the young George was surrounded by "characters" but also by love.
We read of his multiple operations as a child which taught him courage; of life in a pub where he learnt to knock about with people of all sorts and developed his refreshing if sometimes confronting frankness; of his early determination in all pursuits - athletic, intellectual and spiritual - and his leadership skills already in evidence as captain of the school and prefect of the seminary; of his schooling at Australia's priest factory, St Pat's Ballarat, and at Rome's finishing school for priests, Propaganda, at both of which he played ruckman in football and Pooh Bah in The Mikado
; of the friendships made in student days with Fathers Mason, Hart, Elliott and Diamond; and of days in the whirlwind of Rome at the height of Vatican II.
For four years he was in his element at Oxford. There he took on heretic Dominicans such as Schillebeeckx and Marxist Dominicans such as McCabe. These formative experiences are told lyrically, perceptively, sometimes even comically.
I delighted to read, for instance, that the odd couple of Pell and Elliott were known at Blackfriars as "the big Australian bastard" and "the little Australian bastard", and to have the picture painted for me by Tess of the high farce of them riding together on a tiny motor-scooter to Elliott's Confirmation.
When George's father heard the news that his son was to enter the seminary, he lamented to a nun-friend that it was a waste of talent, and that "he might just as well have been a bloody dill". Though not a Catholic, Mr Pell probably knew Catholic priests all too well! His next line was also perceptive: "But you probably don't want dills, do you?" George Junior, his Dad was right to observe, is no dill. And in due course he was to do a great deal to show that Catholics in general and priests in particular need not be. We Dominicans have a motto from St Thomas Aquinas: contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere
: contemplate then pass the fruits to others.
If Tess' first five chapters tell the story of George's own contemplative phase, her next five describe his sharing with others that wisdom received. Not that he goes around reminding people of his Oxford Doctorate, his Roman licenciate, his Monash Masters. Few would realise how broad and cutting edge his academic research has been: Teilhard de Chardin for his Licence; Lawrence Kohlberg for his Masters; for his doctorate that Patristic period to which Vatican II looked for resources for Church renewal; educational theory and catechetical practice for his publications; history, sociology, economics and politics for his many public lectures and columns.
Pell is not the first Australian bishop to be well-educated, a lecturer, a writer: Archbishop D'Arcy was a model for Dr Pell in that. Nonetheless Pell stands out for his international circuit and for choosing as advisers not only the bureaucrats but scholars and people of vision. This is a man who, as several of those interviewed observed, loves books, loves ideas, loves a good argument: and that contest for the hearts and minds of our fellows underpins his vision for the priesthood, the laity, and the Church in the modern world.
Part Two of the book, Pell's working life passing on the fruits of his formative phase before retirement to the Archepiscopate, is told with insight equal to Part One. Here we meet a man whose curacy in Swan Hill, initially a shock, proved in his own words to be the best thing that had happened to him. In preaching, absolving, offering the Holy Sacrifice, visiting the sick and leading his flock - in touching encounters such as that with a couple who had lost their newborn son and had an Archbishop to console them - Livingstone reveals a pastor with a deep and abiding concern not just for ideas but for people.
As Director of Aquinas Ballarat he found his niche until wrenched out to be Rector of the Seminary - but not before he had steered Aquinas from being an unfunded teachers' college with a shaky future, to being a campus of a state-funded Catholic university.
In his Ballarat period Dr Pell wrote, researched, taught and published on moral education, foreshadowing the RE Texts Project he would later initiate. Livingstone gives numerous other examples of Pell's abiding concern for and effectiveness with young people, couples and families, something he shares with our pontiff: through preaching, public statements, consultations with the young, Pentecost Youth Pastorals, leading World Youth Day Pilgrimages, establishing the international John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, instituting Australia's first process to handle complaints of clergy sexual abuse, fighting in the courts and the media against corrupting art and against technology which denies children a father, and establishing the Mary of the Cross Centre for assistance to families with a member affected by drugs.
Whether as Chairman of Caritas Australia, sorting it out at a time when it was under scrutiny, or as a spokesman for the Church on gambling or asylum seekers, Livingstone reveals Pell's fervent interest in issues of social justice which he shared with his mentor B.A. Santamaria. Though George admired Bob all his life, he thought Bob did his best work during those last years when he set up the Thomas More Centre and focused on defending orthodoxy and providing a remedial Catholic formation for the generations who had been denied it.
Bob's work ensured that by the time Dr Pell became Archbishop, there was already a network of young Catholics ready to work with him in various areas of social and ecclesial life. But Bob had also fought the good fight for Catholic social teaching in public life for generations.
Inspired by a not dissimilar vision, "Dr Pell devoted the greater part of nine years to the poorest people on Earth ... ravaged by starvation, natural disasters and brutal regimes". Livingstone draws upon Pell's diaries of his sojourns in Cambodia, South Africa, the Ukraine, the Philippines, India and Vietnam, and they make truly fascinating reading. This section of the book perhaps most clearly demonstrates the unhelpfulness of crude categories such as "left" and "right wing", "conservative" and "progressive", when applied to the likes of Karol Wojtyla and George Pell.
All these works helped prepare Pell for Phase Three, his tale of two cities. That part of the story is still a work-in-progress. George's years in Melbourne were exciting ones. So much happened in a short time. The seminary was overhauled and moved, exciting diverse reactions. Just as when he was Rector some seminarians said they were deeply hurt by being asked to pray every day in the chapel, so as Archbishop he found some staff took a very different view of formation to him.
Common folk, on the other hand, wondered what all the fuss was about. In the clash of worldviews which this represented, Pell reflected the views both of ordinary locals as much as distant hierarchs. But as George Weigel notes in the Foreword to this book: "Pell has become a lightning rod ... not because he is the conniving, authoritarian heavy portrayed by some, but because he has ideas - ideas that challenge the dominant consensus among Australia's intellectual and cultural taste-makers. And that, I suggest, is why the attacks on him over the years have had a particularly venomous personal character."
The seminary now boasts twice as many seminarians as it had when he started his reforms. As one privileged to teach and to direct them spiritually, I can testify that there are some very fine men among them: contrary to the predictions of one anonymous priest in The Age
that they would be neurotic misfits. Nor do I think their generation will engage in anonymous media pot-shots at popes, bishops or fellow priests.
But renewing the priesthood was only part of the Pell legacy. The wonderful higher education complex on both sides of Victoria Parade, the RE Texts, the Mary of the Cross Centre, Catholic Youth Ministry, the John Paul II Institute, the Respect Life Office: so much that is new and vibrant about our Archdiocese springs from those few short years and careful cultivation ever since by his close friend and successor, Archbishop Hart.
I remember well meeting the Pope a few years ago with two of B.A.'s brothers. When they proudly announced that we were from Melbourne, Australia, the Holy Father, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, said "I remember Sydney!" In her prologue Livingstone says that the liturgical reception in St Mary's Cathedral on May 10, 2001 of Dr George Pell, the seventh Archbishop of Melbourne, as the eighth Archbishop of Sydney, represented "a promotion unprecedented in Australian Catholicism".
Well, unprecedented it certainly was. But as a Sydney boy who has lived nearly half my life now in Melbourne, I am not sure what to make of the claim that it was a promotion! Still, Melbourne's loss was Sydney's gain.Accession
Soon after his accession to the See of Sydney I drew George across that other Sea, Sydney Harbour, to my parents' place in Manly for lunch. As we walked through the corso and along the boulevard we were approached by a group of people who had recognised this newcomer to their fair city and wanted to shake his hand. "We're not Catholics," they explained, "but we are very pleased you are now the Archbishop of Sydney. You are exactly what we need!"
Melbourne's loss was Sydney's gain, but it was also, in a sense, Australia's gain. A former Prime Minister declared that those who don't live in Sydney are just camping out. That was impious, especially coming from a Catholic. But as Archbishop of Sydney, His Grace does have a bigger platform, a broader horizon, than Melbourne or even Sydney.
Indeed it is bigger than Australia. Livingstone demonstrates what a man of the international stage Pell is. He has been a member of many Vatican bodies, synods and apostolic visitations, demonstrating a deep and abiding concern not just for the local but for the Church universal.
Those of you who know me, know that I take the itinerant part of being an itinerant friar very seriously. And wherever I go in the world, as soon as I say I am from Australia, people say "Ah, yes, the home of George Pell". Bishops of old used to sign their names +Sydney or +Melbourne: there is, I dare say, only one who could ever sign +Australia.
It is not flattery or rudeness to say that the name of Pell is more likely to be found on the front page of our papers than those of Crean or Carnley ... In our secular culture it is strange and delightful that an Archbishop might be a regular columnist in our biggest selling newspaper, Sydney's Telegraph
Recently I overheard some people discussing a forthcoming book by Tess Livingstone. Rather wickedly, I suppose, as the only person in the group who had read the book, I shut up and listened. I heard that the book was a hagiography, an official biography, part of the Pell PR machine. Well, this book is no hagiography, not even an official biography, though its subject and his family and friends generously co-operated in the interviews for it.
It is a sympathetic treatment, of course, as good biographies must be, but it also hears and considers Dr Pell's critics as often as his admirers. Tess Livingstone is a highly respected writer, the author of so many good articles and, as I have found myself, a probing reporter.
To piece this story together Livingstone visited various parts of Australia, Oxford and Rome, and interviewed over fifty people of all persuasions.
She does not settle for the cardboard cut-outs some choose for simplicity or adversity's sake. She shows, for instance, how very much Pell is a man of Vatican II; how well read he is in contemporary thought; how pastorally engaged and effective he is; how passionate about matters of social justice such as gambling, drugs, HIV, abortion, family breakdown and economic rationalism; and how ready he is to engage the media.
We also read of some of George's doubts, fears and tears, the challenges for a man who does not wear his heart on his sleeve and yet is deeply humane. Indeed it is a tribute to Tess Livingstone that although I have known His Grace for many years, I now feel I know him and like him even better.
Livingstone also helps us to situate Dr Pell in history and geography. Some people just seem to be the right person for the job at a particular time and place. The coincidence of Pell's vision and strategies with those of John Paul the Great is surely providential. Tess' book also demonstrates that the context for so much of George Pell's achievement is friendship. Life-long friends from school and seminary and Oxford days recur throughout this story; so too do more recent friends, many from the new generations. There are many others who could not all be listed, some of them here tonight. And they feature, not just as a supportive backdrop, but as integral pieces of the puzzle of the man.
At his farewell dinner here in Melbourne he declared, "Denis did all the work and I cut a dash". They were a team. Pell is a man of friendship, of conversation, travel, football, art, operetta, humour, colour. As one of Pell's priest critics interviewed in the book puts it: "I would love to say George was a bastard but he wasn't. He is an enigma. He's very pastoral-hearted, very good with people. He's sociable and likes a drink. He was generous with priests ... and loyal." We all have our favourite George Pell anecdotes. Some of us are lucky enough to have private ones. But this book will extend our battery enormously.Cathedral of Light
How many of us remember with delight the night of Dr Pell's installation at Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building, soon to be listed as Australia's first World Heritage Building - no doubt because of what happened that night! It was a night of magic when the exhibition building became a cathedral of light. But light shines out only in a dark world and the magic cannot last. Once in a while we realise that there is, as Livingstone quotes His Grace reflecting, real evil in the world.
In recent months Dr Pell has had cause to speculate about evil. Many of us have been angry about the injustice he has suffered, slurs we knew to be absurd and malicious. We have wondered how Dr Pell could endure this malevolence with such dignity and courage. Livingstone gives us some light on this.
Way back in 1984, after Pope John Paul published Salvifici Doloris
, George wrote for Light
magazine some words I think worth quoting at length:
"Human suffering is a mystery and the suffering of good people is a greater mystery still. For those without faith, suffering is a brute fact, without meaning, which many bear stoically and with dignity.
"For those people with faith in a personal God, who is good and has endowed life with pattern and purpose, suffering can seem to contradict the Good News."
How often must the author of these words have pondered where the Good News was to be found in the accusations and the process which followed? How often did we all wonder? Dr Pell continued:
"A sudden and unexpected death, or a massive injustice, can shake and test a faith lived out and supported by many years of prayer and good behaviour ... But it is no coincidence that the cross ... is the most powerful Christian symbol. It helps us when in trouble to know that the Son of God suffered too. Suffering can poison us, harden our hearts, confirm us in our obsession with self. But Christians believe that suffering can purify, spark unexpected growth, humanly and spiritually. We also believe that the scales of justice balance out in eternity ...".
As God can bring good out of any evil, so there will be fruit from this latest trial. A massive injustice suffered can, as Dr Pell rightly observed all those years ago, either break a man or make him.
Already I have seen some of that fruit: amongst my staff and students at the John Paul II Institute, at Catholic Youth Ministry, at the Thomas More Centre, at gatherings of priests, in parishes all around the country, people praying for a just resolution of these troubles and for the vindication of our friend and father George.
I have seen Dr Pell's many friends and admirers, and even some who would not normally count themselves in that group, stand by him in his darkest hour - or should I say, his darkest 60 Minutes
. To be an occasion for so many prayers, so many tokens of love spoken not just to you directly but also to God about you, is a very great grace.
Whatever awaits him, for George Pell what matters most is whatever awaits the Church. With respect to Tess's rather imaginative last chapter, the next ten chapters are still to be written by God and his servant. This much one can predict with confidence: that Dr Pell will continue to see his vocation as much more than the maintenance and management of old structures or providing entertainment and therapy.
"The Australian temptation," he once told graduating students at Aquinas College, "is to tame Christ, not to crucify him; to trivialise his life and mission, not to grant them significance [even] by an act of repudiation ... our society is pressuring the Church to abandon her claims to ... revealed truth. The religion we profess is not a general "do-goodism" or a gentle humanism, but one which makes difficult and particular demands, and requires specific beliefs".
As pastor George will continue to exhort, cajole and convict us with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to invite, persuade and agitate us to join him in the great adventure of building up God's kingdom on earth. And that will continue to provoke the ire of those with a "solar ethic", whether imported Don Cupitts or our locally grown tormentors.
In the meanwhile, I exhort His Grace to spend at least a month surfing: as a New South Welshman who made good by crossing the Murray, I dare say to a Victorian who has gone the other way, that the beaches really are better up there - better enough, indeed, to have stuck in the mind of the Pope.
Tess, too, deserves her rest, and our gratitude. It was brave, even for a faithful daughter of the Church and an investigative reporter of Tess' great gifts, experience and knowledge. It was brave to take on the biography of a prelate who sees the world as a big football game with the Last Judgement a kind of Grand Final when the Sheep beat the Goats. She has written what will be a highly popular biography, as a good and faithful reporter. She will, I hope, change for ever the simplistic readings which some engage in with respect to Dr Pell.
It is with the greatest pleasure that I declare this ship - not, given the subject's republican tendencies, Her Majesty's ship, but simply the Good Ship George Pell - officially, Melbournely, launched.