In Gratitude: Cardinal George Pell

The sudden death of Australian Cardinal George Pell at age 81 is a tremendous loss for faithful Catholics, and for all others who learned valuable lessons from his personal courage and Christian devotion. Pell was a true servant of God, laboring with admirable fortitude in the vineyard of the Lord. He served well the people of God and in particular the three popes who called upon him to exercise bold leadership in promoting the saving mission of the Church.

If for nothing else, I will remember Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell with profound gratitude every time I begin Mass with the entrance antiphon according to the revised English translation of the Roman Missal that came into use in 2011. This new translation replaced the painfully inaccurate one in use since the introduction of the Novus Ordo Mass. This new translation, faithful to the deep meaning and nuance of the Latin original, was the fruit of the diligent work of the Vox Clara Committee of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Pell was the chairman of Vox Clara.

Vox Clara and Pope Benedict gave us a great gift that promotes true liturgical renewal through fidelity to the Latin wording of Church’s public prayers. The earlier translation was fatally flawed – distorting sentences composed in Latin that incorporated profound scriptural and theological references in poetical phrases of great beauty and concision.

Cardinal Pell was the driving force of Vox Clara. It’s a joy to know that the prayers we are praying at Mass are no longer the intentionally loose, or simply amateurish, approximations to the Latin original, but rather faithful renderings of the words and meanings found in the Latin missal.

I first met Cardinal Pell when I was a young priest in the late 1980s. He was visiting our mutual friend Msgr. Michael Wrenn in New York. He struck me as a straight shooter who had no fear in defending Church teaching. He resisted the wave of dissent sweeping the Church in the wake of the upheavals following the Second Vatican Council. He had the self-assurance that comes from acknowledging that the truths Christ handed down to his Church are an unchangeable gift for our salvation.

He remained faithful to the perennial doctrine of the Catholic Church. He was a model of intelligent defense of that teaching in the media. Fearlessness is another word for courage. He was abundantly blessed with the gift of fortitude, and he spoke plainly in defense of Catholic truth. His final article, published just the day after his death in The Spectator, sets forth a bold indictment of the errors  promoted in the official working document of the Synod on Synodality. Pell wrote: “The Catholic Synod of Bishops is now busy constructing what they think of as ‘God’s dream’ of synodality. Unfortunately, this divine dream has developed into a toxic nightmare despite the bishops’ professed good intentions.”

He bluntly called it “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome.”

And asked: “What is one to make of this potpourri, this outpouring of New Age good will? It is not a summary of Catholic faith or New Testament teaching. It is incomplete, hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition and nowhere acknowledges the New Testament as the Word of God, normative for all teaching on faith and morals. The Old Testament is ignored, patriarchy rejected and the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments, is not acknowledged.”

He continues: “The ex-Anglicans among us are right to identify the deepening confusion, the attack on traditional morals and the insertion into the dialogue of neo-Marxist jargon about exclusion, alienation, identity, marginalisation, the voiceless, LGBTQ as well as the displacement of Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing, redemption. Why the silence on the afterlife of reward or punishment, on the four last things; death and judgement, heaven and hell?”

A true Defender of the Faith, he boldly called out and refuted the wave of doctrinal error and confusion provoked by this Roman surrender to the spirt of the age. He understood that the strange idea that the deposit of faith is not a gift to be preserved and safeguarded, but rather just a point of reference – subject to remaking according to the supposed needs of the present age – is a mortal threat to the peace and stability of the Church.

Pell concludes: “So far the synodal way has neglected, indeed downgraded the Transcendent, covered up the centrality of Christ with appeals to the Holy Spirit and encouraged resentment, especially among participants. . . .[T]his working document needs radical changes. The bishops must realise that there is work to be done, in God’s name, sooner rather than later.”

Alas, the Good Lord in his mysterious, yet always beneficent, providence has abruptly taken this true shepherd from our midst when we feel most keenly the need for his presence among us. God has his plan; his ways are not our ways. Pell’s fellow cardinals, who bear the great responsibility of advising Pope Francis and of one day electing his successor, now must take up the baton. They should do so with the same confidence and serenity that Pell displayed, knowing that God enables us to do the great things necessary to protect the Church from those who would “improve” her by changing her teachings.

In this race that is our life on earth, courage and strength come from above. St. Paul’s words find fulfillment in the life of Cardinal George Pell: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:78)

May Cardinal George Pell rest in peace.


*Image: Cardinal Pell by Andrew Gow, 2015 [This portrait was commissioned through the Knights of Malta to commemorate Cardinal Pell’s inauguration as Prefect of Secretariat for the Economy  and was unveiled at the Vatican in 2016]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s review of “The Dictator Pope”

Stephen P. White’s Pell Case Quashed – McCarrick Report Still Pending

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.