If, somewhat adopting Mortimer J Adler’s approach to the Great Books of the Western World, one were to assemble the Great Books of Christianity, included in such an assembly would be Fr (as he then was) Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, first published in 1968. Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity is a book for all times, easy to grasp, expressed in flowing language, devoid of technical foliage, written dialogically, contrasting other views, albeit respectfully.
In the Preface to the 2000 edition of Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger sums up what he is about: the concept of Logos, the Word, as referred to in the Prologue to the Gospel of John, is at the very centre of our Christian faith in God; the God who is Logos guarantees the intelligibilityof the world, the intelligibility of our existence, the aptitude of reason to know God and the reasonableness of God; the world comes from reason, and this reason is a Person, is Love – this is what our biblical faith tells us about God; reason can speak about God; it must speak about God, or else it cuts itself short.
It is sometimes said that, intellectually, there was a youthful Ratzinger, different from the older Ratzinger. No doubt, Ratzinger matured as he grew older, reading ever more widely and deeply, engaging in conversation with many others, with many different perspectives, ultimately viewing the world from the eyrie of the papacy.
Pope John Paul II
From 1981 when Ratzinger was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, until 2005, when Pope John Paul II died, Ratzinger was arguably John Paul II’s closestcollaborator. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was arguably better informed about Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, around the world, than any other person alive. Moreover, then Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was consulted repeatedly about John Paul II’s enormous re-statement and development of Catholic thought, notably the encyclicals Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor. We will probably never know the full details of the continuing dialogue between John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger, but it was substantial and continuing. Ratzinger’s intellectual contribution to modern Catholicism is inextricably entwined with that of Karol Wojtyla/St John Paul II. Together they are intellectual giants, not only of Catholicism, but of the modern world. Yet beyond Ratzinger, the intellectual giant, was the person whose last words summed up his life: “Jesus, I love you.”
Baptised the Day He was Born
Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria, southern Germany in 1927. Ratzinger’s father was a policeman who took early retirement to avoid co-operation with the Nazis. Ratzinger’s mother was a cook. There were three children, Maria (born 7 December 1921), Georg (born 15 January 1924), Joseph, born at 4:05 am on Holy Saturday, 16 April 1927 – and baptised at 8:30 am the same day. Maria worked all her adult life as a secretary and housekeeper to her brother, Joseph. Georg was ordained a priest at the same time as his brother, Joseph, and was, for many years, the choirmaster at the Regensburg Cathedral.
Doctorates on St Augustine and St Bonaventure
Joseph Ratzinger, after leaving school, studied philosophy and theology at the University of Munich. He was ordained a priest on 29 June 1951 in the Freising Cathedral. In 1953 he completed a Doctorate in Theology at the University of Munich with a thesis on The People and the House of God in St Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church. In 1954 Ratzinger completed a further Doctorate with a thesis on The Theology of History in St Bonaventure.
For most of his life in Germany, Ratzinger was an academic, a professional theologian. From 1953 until 1958, Ratzinger was a theology lecturer, later Professor of Dogmatic and Fundamental Theology, at Freising. From 1959 until 1963 Ratzinger was Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Bonn. From 1962 until 1965, he was an advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, and a peritus at the Second Vatican Council. From 1963 until 1966, Ratzinger was Professor of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma at the University of Munster. From 1966 until 1969, Ratzinger was Professor of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma at the University of Tubingen. From 1969 until 1977, Ratzinger was Professor of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma at the University of Regensburg.
Archbishop of Munich and Freising
From 1977 until 1982, Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich and Freising. On 27 June 1977, Ratzinger was appointed a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
On 25 November 1982, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and President of the International Theological Commission. Ratzinger held these positions until 2005 when he was elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
From 1986 until 1992, Ratzinger was head of the Pontifical Commission for the Preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Thus, Ratzinger was responsible for the most significant, indeed, encyclopaedic, statement of Catholic belief and practice since the Catechism of the Council of Trent was published in 1566.
On 2 November 1991, Ratzinger’s sister, Maria, died. In 1992, Ratzinger suffered a stroke and was hospitalised for several weeks. On 7 November 1992, Ratzinger was elected a member of the French Academy. On 2 April 2005, Pope John Paul II died. On 8 April 2005, Ratzinger presided at the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
On 19 April 2005, Ratzinger was elected Pope, and took the name Benedict XVI. Ratzinger was the first German Pope since Adrian VI, almost 500 years earlier. As Pope, Benedict XVI confronted the sexual abuse scandals, perhaps the Church’s greatest challenge since the Reformation. Writing in a personal capacity, Ratzinger comments that the Church’s greatest need in the present historical situation is people who make God credible in this world by means of the enlightened faith they live. The negative testimony of Christians who speak of God but live in a manner contrary to him has obscured the image of God and has opened the doors to disbelief. On 11 February 2013 Ratzinger was the first pope in one thousand years to resign.
Watering Down Demands of Faith
Writing in 1968, in the Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger asked: has our theology in the lastfew years not gradually watered down the demands of faith, which have been found all too demanding, always little by little, so that at first nothing important seemed to be lost. And will the Christian who trustingly lets himself be led from diminution in Christian belief and practice, to diminution, not soon hold in his hand, instead of the gold with which he began, only a whetstone that he can safely be advised to throw away?
Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity was intended to help understand faith afresh as something that makes possible true humanity in the world of today, to expand our understanding of faith without changing it into the small coin of empty talk.
God is Dead
As to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proposition, Ratzinger asks: has not Christian consciousness acquiesced to a great extent – without being aware of it – in the attitude that faith in God is something subjective, which belongs in the private realm, and not in the common activities of public life where, in order to be able to get along, we all have to now behave as if there were no God? But faith only comes out of the ghetto if it brings its most distinctive feature with it into the public arena: the God who suffers, the God who sets limits and standards for us, the God from whom we come, and to whom we are going.
Ratzinger looks unbelief in the face, understands unbelief empathetically, perhaps morethan unbelief understands itself – and responds to unbelief, calmly, dispassionately, and with love for those who do not believe. Even if Ratzinger’s life had been cut short in 1968, long before his Roman period from 1981, but after publication of Introduction to Christianity, he would have contributed much, both to the Church, and to human understanding.
Since the Introduction to Christianity was written in 1968, Ratzinger’s intellectual output has been enormous. One fact which makes Joseph Ratzinger significant is that he lived a long life (1927 – 2022). Ratzinger has written hundreds of books, articles, and papers on many different areas of theology – Scripture, tradition, revelation, Christology, ecclesiology, liturgy, eschatology, the priesthood, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, relativism, culture, music. Although not the proponent of a theological system, Ratzinger’s writing combines both depth when dealing with particular subjects, and breadth across the gamut of modern theology. Even during the period from 1981 until 2005, when Ratzinger was Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, he continued to write as a theologian, expressing personal views on theological topics, about matters on which theologians are free to express a personal view.
Centre of Affairs
Ratzinger was at the centre of affairs for much of his adult life – as an intellectual contributing to the Ressourcement movement; as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 until 1965; as an interpreter of the Second Vatican Council in the debates that followed; as one of the founders in 1972 of the theological journal Communio; as St John Paul II’s closest theological advisor from 1981 until 2005; as Pope Benedict XVI from 2005 until 2013; and as Emeritus Pope from 2013 to 2022. Each of these areas of Ratzinger’s adult life can be studied both intensively and at great length.
While Bavarian, while German, while European, as Joseph Ratzinger matured, increasingly he thought and felt in a manner which transcended those particular origins. One becomes aware of this, listening to interviews with Ratzinger. Ratzinger is able to empathetically engage with perspectives quite different from his own, while expressing opinions drawn from Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the Magisterium, the best of Catholic, indeed Hebrew, thought over some three millennia, the best of modern scholarship. Ratzinger is always aware of his intellectual opponents, always happy to engage with them in a respectful, indeed insightful, manner, recounting their views more persuasively than they themselves. Much of Ratzinger’s writing transcends time and place and circumstance, and hence has a perennial quality which ensures it will be read centuries hence.
Professor Tracey Rowland of the University of Notre Dame Sydney, a former member of the International Theological Commission, demonstrates that Ratzinger understood the inadequacies of much Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. The young Ratzinger was influenced by the Catholic intellectual response to Romanticism, especially German Romanticism – and, over time, by thinkers such as St Augustine (354-430), St Bonaventure (1221-1274), StJohn Henry Newman (1801 – 1890), Martin Buber (1878 – 1965), Romano Guardini (1885 -1968), Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991), Dietrich von Hildebrand (1899 – 1977), Josef Pieper (1904 – 1997), and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 – 1988). Ratzinger’s theological approach is distinctly personalist. Ratzinger constantly returns to both Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
Not only was the young Ratzinger a significant player at the Second Vatican Council, as an advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, he was also a significant player in the debate after the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965 as to how the documents of the Council are to be interpreted. Ratzinger is a proponent of continuity: the documents of the Second Vatican Council are to be interpreted in accordance with Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the 2000 year Magisterium of the Church.
Ratzinger’s Personal Writing
If one were to choose the writing of Ratzinger (other than the 1968 classic, Introduction to Christianity), best read by persons unfamiliar with his thought, what would they be? I suggest:
- Jesus of Nazareth:
- The Infancy Narratives (2012)
- From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007)
- From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (2011)
The Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was written by Ratzinger while Pope in his “spare time”, but not invoking papal authority.Ratzinger writes as a mere theologian.Ratzinger specifically says he writes “in no way as an exercise of the magisterium, but…solely [as] an expression of my personal search for the face of the Lord”.Ratzinger acknowledges that “everyone is free to contradict me”.The first published volume contains an invaluable piece on scriptural exegesis acknowledging the contribution of the historico-critical method, also acknowledging its insufficiency.The first published volume also contains a piece highlighting what I call the personalistic approach to scripture:“The disciple who walks with Jesus is caught up with him into communion with God.”Ratzinger’s method is to observe and listen to the Jesus of the Gospels so as to lead to a personal encounter, and, through listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages, to attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.
2. Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to Spiritual Christology (1984)
Like much of Ratzinger’s writing, Behold the Pierced One, contains various pieces written at different times.It demonstrates the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth, of Christ, in Ratzinger’s thought.
3.The Spirit of the Liturgy (1999)
4.Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2006)
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, is one of the numerous works in which Ratzinger discusses the relationship between religion and culture. One commentary on this, focusing on various addresses by Ratzinger as Pope, is Pope Benedict XVI’sLegal Thought: A Dialogue on the Foundation of Law edited by Marta Cartabia and Andrea Simoncini published by Cambridge University Press.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (as well as President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and of the International Theological Commission) from 1981 until 2005. What are the publications of those bodies best read by persons unfamiliar with Ratzinger’s thought? I suggest:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
- Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (2002)
This Doctrinal Note is a contemporary discussion of the Church’s position as to Catholics and politics, in particular, in a pluralistic society.
3. Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)
4. Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001)
The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church and The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, together with the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Light and Mission of the Church, are a contemporary statement of biblical exegesis.
5. International Theological Commission. Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past (2002)
This very thoughtful document at the end of the second millennium invites a ‘purification of memory’ as to evils done in the past involving the division of Christians, the use of force in the service of truth, Christians and Jews.It also draws attention to present day evils, including the denial of God, religious indifference, attacks on human life, ethical relativism, indifference to the cry of the poor.
The above documents probably originated with a draft by someone other than Ratzinger, but as a result of discussions involving various experts including Ratzinger. They were revised by Ratzinger in the course of further collegial discussions. They bear Ratzinger’s mark.
Pope Benedict XVI
If one were to choose the magisterial documents of Pope Benedict XVI, best read by persons unfamiliar with his writing, what would they be? I suggest:
- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2005)
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a user friendly but authoritative statement of Catholic belief and practice.
2. Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. University of Regensburg (2006).
Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address is a global consideration of the compatibility, indeed, coherence, of faith and reason.
3. Encyclical Letter. Deus Caritas Est: on Christian Love (2005)
Deus Caritas Est is the programmatic encyclical of Benedict XVI’s papacy, in a sense, a summary of his thought.
4. Encyclical Letter. Spe Salvi: on Christian Hope (2007)
Spe Salvi is a continuation of Benedict XVI’s trilogy on the theological virtues. The third encyclical, Lumen Fidei, was drafted by Benedict XVI, but released by Pope Francis, after Benedict’s resignation, with amendments.
5. Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Verbum Domini: On the Word of God in the Light and Mission of the Church (2010)
Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI was a theological genius, but possessed of a genius only exceeded by faith.
Cardinal George Pell
Larger than Life
Cardinal George Pell was a larger-than-life character who was at the centre of events, even in “retirement” in Rome. Cardinal Pell was highly regarded in Rome, as having suffered for the faith, wrongly imprisoned for over a year on charges of sexual assault, after an unfair trial, ultimately overturned 7 nil in the High Court of Australia. Cardinal Pell, prior to his death, was more highly regarded outside Australia for his muscular and intelligent defence of the Catholic tradition than in Australia, where he had entrenched critics, both within the Church, and beyond.
Born in 1941, George Pell grew up in Ballarat, and went to school there. Pell was dux of StPatrick’s College, Ballarat. At the time Pell left school, he rejected a football contract with the iconic Australian football club, Richmond, in favour of study for the priesthood. While in the seminary, Pell played Australian Rules. Pell has been an Australian Rules tragic all his life. Pell had the manner of many former footballers – what you see is what you get, plain spoken, blunt, forthright, clear and strong in his opinions.
Fr George Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 as a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat. While Pell was studying in Rome, the Second Vatican Council was meeting. Following studies in Rome and at Oxford, in 1971, Pell returned to Australia. At Oxford, Pell completed a PhD in early Church history.
In 1971, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns became Bishop of Ballarat, the Diocese in which Fr Pell was incardinated. Bishop Mulkearns failed to address the issue of sexual abuse within his Diocese, most notably by Fr Gerard Ridsdale, now in a Victorian prison. The criminal proceedings againstFr Ridsdale were very belatedly brought by the Victorian Police. The actions of Fr Ridsdale ought have been promptly addressed by both Bishop Mulkearns, and by the Victorian Police. Neither come out of this well.
Fr Pell was the Episcopal Vicar for Education, largely concerned with teacher training. He taught at what was then the Ballarat Teachers’ College, was Director of what became the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education (1974 – 1984), and Principal of the Victorian Institute of Catholic Education (1981 – 1984). In 1979, Pell was appointed Editor of Light, the Ballarat Catholic periodical. In 1985 Pell was appointed Rector of Corpus Christi Seminary at Werribee in Victoria. Although still incardinated in Ballarat, he was, to all intents and purposes, gone from the Ballarat Diocese.
In 1987, then Pope John Paul II appointed Fr Pell as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. His superior was Archbishop Frank Little, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 until his resignation in 1996. The relationship between the two men was distant, with then auxiliary Bishop Pell excluded from a significant role in the administration of the Archdiocese. Archbishop Little said of then auxiliary Bishop Pell’s appointment, “others do the choosing.”
Australian Catholic Relief
From 1989 until 1997, Bishop Pell was Chair of Australian Catholic Relief. In 1990, Bishop Pell was appointed to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1993, Pell appeared on the famous episode of the ABC program, 4 Corners, in a debate where he defended then Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. Pell was always there in defence of the magisterium.
Archbishop of Melbourne
In 1996 following the resignation of Archbishop Little, Bishop Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne. Archbishop Little had failed to take effective action against predatory clergy, mostnotably Fr Peter Searson who died without criminal changes being brought against him. In 1996 now Archbishop Pell established the Melbourne Response, the first scheme in Australia to deal comprehensively with sexual abuse in Church institutions, and one of the first in the world. Towards Healing, the response of other Australian dioceses, commenced shortly afterwards.
As Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Pell was responsible for over 30 priests (including Fr Peter Searson) ceasing ministry. Wherever Cardinal Pell was, he reformed the seminaries – in Melbourne and later in Sydney. The corruption which prevailed in the Catholic seminaries in the 1970s and 1980s, ought have been intolerable. This corruption was not peculiar to Australia but was widespread throughout, certainly, the English-speaking world. The “findings” of the Royal Commission against Cardinal Pell are ironic, given his record as a reformer.
Archbishop of Sydney
Archbishop Pell was appointed in 2001 Archbishop of Sydney, following the resignation of Cardinal Edward Clancy. In April 2002, Archbishop Pell was appointed Chair of the Vox Clara Committee which was established with regard to the English translation of liturgical texts. In 2003, Pope John Paul II appointed Archbishop Pell a Cardinal.
Best Known Australian Catholic
In 2013, the Victorian Police established Operation Tethering before there was any complaint against Cardinal Pell. The Victorian Police eventually, in desperation, advertised, for complaints against then Cardinal Pell. They then brought charges against Cardinal Pell in the absence of a competent investigation.
In 2013, Cardinal Pell was Australia’s best-known Catholic. Pell was well known for his willingness to engage in intellectual debate, both in the media and in the university. Pell had reinvigorated the seminaries, both in Melbourne and in Sydney; refurbished St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney; established the University of Notre Dame Sydney; reformed the Australian Catholic University; encouraged Australia’s first liberal arts college, Campion College in Sydney; reinvigorated the university and youth apostolate, in particular, the Australian Catholic Students Association (ACSA); established Domus Australia for Australian pilgrims in Rome. Whilst Archbishop of Sydney, Pell wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph. Cardinal Pell was the author of several books which intelligently put the case for Catholicism. Cardinal Pell was responsible for the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney. He had a wide circle of friends, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and vigorously promoted able young lay Catholics to positions of influence within the Church. He was much hated by those who thought Catholics should accept the materialistic ethos of contemporary western society. He was much hated by Australia’s gay lobby for his defence of marriage as between a man and a woman. In short, Cardinal Pell was a controversial figure, much loved, but also much hated, by his opponents, both within and without the Church.
Prior to his two trials in the Victorian County Court, one where the jury could not agree, and one where the jury convicted, much of the media engaged in lynch mob behaviour, calculated to render a fair trial impossible. When eventually all convictions were overturned in the High Court, there was no acknowledgment by Cardinal Pell’s enemies that the presumption of innocence, and the right to a fair trial, had been trampled on. Even following Cardinal Pell’s death, old allegations were dusted off by the media as if they were true. The Australian media failed to distinguish between an allegation and a fact established after a fair trial. Much of the media disregarded journalistic ethics.
Flawed Legal Process
I have written elsewhere of the flawed legal process which led to Cardinal Pell’s wrongful conviction and false imprisonment for over a year. See Pell’s Kangaroo Court | MercatorNet and Australia’s trial of the century | MercatorNet. Similarly, I have written elsewhere about the flawed findings, indeed findings based on speculation, not evidence, of the Royal Commission, accepted uncritically by Cardinal Pell’s enemies. See Was the Royal Commission hand in glove with the “Get Pell” campaign? | MercatorNet
The dissenting decision of Justice Weinberg in the Victorian Court of Appeal, and the unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia, ought have given Cardinal Pell’s enemies pause. The argument of the Pell haters is an abandonment to irrationality, paranoia and hatred. That irrationality, paranoia and hatred was on display at the time of Cardinal Pell’s funeral, not only on the part of the protesters, but also on the part of the media. In Australia, Cardinal Pell’s enemies despised him for his vigorous intellectual defence of Catholicism. Cardinal Pell’s enemies were happy for him to rot in gaol. These were those who prematurely urged that the legal process be “respected”, even after what was obviously a flawed trial.
Jesus of Nazareth
Cardinal Pell demonstrates an approach to Catholicism which reaches back to Jesus of Nazareth, drawing on Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, as well as the best of the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition. Cardinal Pell’s approach both respects and adopts the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in the light of the Church’s tradition, and in the light of the 2000-year history of the magisterium outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pell’s approach is not the theology of “rupture”, but a theology which regards the Second Vatican Council in continuity with the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The Church’s understanding of the truth has developed over time. Pell’s approach emphasises going back to the sources of the Catholic tradition, to what Jesus of Nazareth taught, what the early Christians lived and died for. According to Pell, the Church is here to proclaim in the 21st century the very same message which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed at the beginning of the Christian era.
Cardinal Pell’s intellectual approach reflects the transcendental personalism of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. To this transcendental personalism, Pell brought his own history, as a boy growing up in Ballarat, Victoria, in the 1940s and 1950s, with a non-religious father and a Catholic mother, his perspective as a church historian.
The message of Jesus of Nazareth is expressed by Cardinal Pell in Be Not Afraid (2004) as based on four foundations:
1 We believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who loves us.
2 We believe in one Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died and rose from the dead to save us.
3 We believe in the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, where we are led in service and worship by the Pope and bishops.
4 We believe that Jesus, Our Lord, calls us to repent and believe; that is, to choose faith, not doubt, love, not hate, good, not evil, and eternal life in heaven, not hell.
Cardinal Pell’s Christianity is no comfortable, no bourgeois approach, but an approach which will always challenge the assumptions of any society in which it is proclaimed. Cardinal Pell had his enemies, and also had his suffering. Both are part of the uncomfortable gig, which is Christianity, at any time, in any place.
Faith and Reason
Cardinal Pell’s theology regards faith and reason as harmonious and directed to truth. He accepts the best of modern thought, the best of modern science. An illustration of Cardinal Pell’s acceptance of modern thought is his ready acceptance of the findings of modern science as to the origins of the universe, including the theory of evolution. Cardinal Pell’s theology recognises that the Bible is not a source of empirical scientific knowledge, but is concerned with matters which transcend empirical science. Another illustration of Cardinal Pell’s acceptance of modern thought is his application of modern management methods, including modern accounting systems, to the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and as the Vatican’s Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
Cardinal Pell, while not an academic of the depth of Joseph Ratzinger, was well-read, particularly from the perspective of the Fathers of the Church. He had the mind of an historian.
Cardinal Pell’s homilies, almost always based on the readings of the day, and within the context of the liturgical season, explain in simple terms the Church’s teaching, not his own idiosyncrasies. Pell was a great communicator of the Christian message. Cardinal Pell, as a speaker, was always easy to follow.
Cardinal Pell had the capacity to expound, in a balanced and reasonable manner, on appropriate occasions, challenging topics as, for instance, Conscience: ‘The Aboriginal Vicar of Christ’ in a 2004 address at Cambridge University. Pell’s capacity to deal with challenging topics is highlighted in the collection of essays God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics & Society (2007). Amongst the topics Pell deals with in God and Caesar are:
- Law and Morality
- The Church and Politics
- Catholicism and Democracy
- Is There Only Secular Democracy?
- God, Evolution and Consilience?
- The Case for God
- Theology and the University
- Human Dignity, Human Rights, and Moral Responsibility.
Cardinal Pell’s other published writings include Test Everything: Hold Fast to What is Good(2010); Contemplating Christ with Luke (2012), and the three volume Prison Journal (2021) which is likely to be his most read work. Nowhere is Cardinal Pell’s theology more clear than in his Prison Journal, his account of over a year he spent in solitary confinement in Victorian prisons.
Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal is a day by day, week by week, account of solitary confinement. Not that Pell was entirely alone. His brother, David Pell, and sister-in-law, Judy, his nieces and nephews, his friends, including the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, visited from time to time. Despite prison censorship, Pell received letters from thousands of ordinary, and not so ordinary Australians – for example, former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer. Pell had a genius for friendship. He had many an unpredictable friend. Pell was, not unnaturally, buoyed by the kindness shown him by many strangers who wrote to him, as well as by the support of friends.
Pell lived in an intellectual world which threw him into conversation with a diverse crew, not all Catholic – St Anthony of Egypt, Michelangelo, St Teresa of Avila, Job, G K Chesterton, Pope Gregory the Great, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cardinal Mindszenty, St John of the Cross, Leo Tolstoy, StJohn Paul II, Constantine, Aristotle, St Irenaeus, St Polycarp, St Patrick, St Jerome, St ThomasAquinas, Gilbert and Sullivan, Frank Sheed, Albert Einstein, John Finnis, T S Eliot, John Milton, StBenedict, Padre Pio…
One of the persons Cardinal Pell mentions most frequently is the Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Van Thuan, coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon, who spent thirteen years in communist prisons, with two long spells in solitary confinement. Another person Pell mentions frequently is St ThomasMore. Both Thuan and More had trouble with the law, in More’s case, deadly trouble. Both wrote of their time in prison. Both remained faithful in very difficult circumstances. Both were an inspiration to Pell. Pell was a person of faith who saw the finger of God in all the circumstances of life.
Pell was reminded he was alive by other prisoners with whom he was unable to converse, but of whose presence he was aware, as a result their mentally disturbed behaviour, including repetitive shouting and banging.
One of the themes of Cardinal Pell’s prayer is forgiveness. Pell’s silences are significant. Pell takes forgiveness seriously, and speaks well of others, though, on occasion, willing to respectfully spell out differences on an intellectual level. Pell was not bitter, he did not harbour rancour nor hatred. Pell forgave. Pell did not hold grudges. Pell tried to treat everyone who crossed his path with respect.
Pell was strip searched from time to time, quite unnecessarily. One is left wondering whether this was done by the prison authorities as a means of humiliating him. Pell’s cell was searched for drugs. Again, one is left wondering what was the rationale for this. Pell had various dealings with the guards and associated staff – a physiotherapist, a podiatrist, nurses, doctors, a counsellor, administrative staff. Pell was respectful in his description of prison staff, but describes coolly the boredom, the routine, the rules, the long delays, the bizarre time-tabling of meals, the idiocies that characterise prison life – as well as the difficulty getting an alarm clock. Apparently, in Victorian jails, one cannot get tissues to use as a handkerchief, only toilet paper. Pell tried to exercise twice a day, and kept his cell shipshape. Somehow, Pell managed, usually not without difficulty, to get hold of various items essential for prison life including a kettle, a mop and a broom. Pell watched a fair amount of television, carefully selected by him, not least football. Pell was a Sukodu puzzle enthusiast. Pell provides an unenthusiastic description of prison food.
Catholic Liturgical Year
In his time in prison, Cardinal Pell drew all this together in the framework of the Catholic liturgical year – Ash Wednesday, and the succeeding weeks of Lent; Holy Week including the Last Supper, Good Friday, Easter Sunday; Pentecost; Corpus Christi – and in the context of Scripture, and prayers, hymns and readings found in the Divine Liturgy – the ancient prayer of the Church which priests are required to say each day. As well, Pell had norms of personal prayer, spiritual reading, rosary and so on. Pell tried to keep constantly in the presence of God. The greatest “loss” of his imprisonment was the inability to say Mass. While in prison Pell sought to “replace”, albeit unsuccessfully, the Mass with other devotions.
At the 2019 ad limina visit of the Australian bishops to Rome, Pope Francis commended Pell as a personal friend, implicitly endorsed his innocence, and explained to the Australian bishops he had not asked for Pell’s resignation.
Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal is an interesting and, despite all, an optimistic account of his daily life in prison. Optimistic because Pell’s faith provided him with an answer to the meaning of suffering. Pell’s Prison Journal is a revelation of the mind of a prisoner who should never have been convicted, let alone imprisoned.
As to my personal dealings with Cardinal Pell, they were confined to the period from perhaps 2008 when I first became a Vice President of the St Thomas More Society, until 2014 while he was Archbishop of Sydney, and therefore Patron of the Society. At some stage I knocked into Cardinal Pell walking by himself at night across Hyde Park on his way to have a swim in the pool at the Tattersalls Club. At that time the lighting in Hyde Park was poor, and there was always the risk of being assaulted, or even worse. I castigated Cardinal Pell, which he took good-humouredly, albeit demonstrating no intention of changing his habit of walking across Hyde Park by himself! We proceeded to discuss Greg Smith’s political victory in Epping. Greg Smith was by then a former President of the St Thomas More Society, and a courageous supporter of pro-life, pro-family approaches. Cardinal Pell was not shy about being a Greg Smith supporter.
Cardinal Pell regularly attended functions of the St Thomas More Society, not only celebrating the Red Mass whenever he could, but also giving humorous off the cuff commentary on current events at the Society’s Christmas Party.
On one occasion when Cardinal Pell attended the St Thomas More Christmas Party, he needed to be back at the Cathedral no later than 7:25 pm. No arrangements had been made for transport. The best we could come up with was my tiny red Toyota Yaris. Cardinal Pell said: “Anything will do.” However, when I drove up Macquarie Street, in the Toyota Yaris, even Cardinal Pell looked askance! Somehow, he squeezed into the Yaris! Given Cardinal Pell’s substantial frame, he was incapable of sitting comfortably in the front passenger seat! I enjoyed the drive! My passenger did not!
Cardinal Pell always had an opinion, but it was always measured, it was always nuanced, he was always open to argument, he never took offence at the expression of another opinion. If Cardinal Pell was due to depart a function at 8 pm, he would often be chatting at 8.15pm. Cardinal Pell did not mind with whom he chatted. He had no pretensions. He had the common touch. He chatted on the steps of St Mary’s Cathedral after the Red Mass to all and sundry – judges, politicians, lawyers, students – and the little old lady who had slipped in the back to see what was going on. He was tolerant, even of the mad, the single-issue nut, the person who saw everything in black and white, from one perspective.
The very personal criticisms of Cardinal Pell, to my observation, have no basis. Cardinal Pell was a man’s man, he always spoke his mind, but respectfully. I found Cardinal Pell easy to deal with, a person with whom one could have a frank conversation. The pejorative descriptions in the media of personal dealings with Cardinal Pell are inconsistent with my experience.
In Your Face
Both the retiring, music-loving scholar, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI from Bavaria, and Cardinal George Pell, the in-your-face Australian Rules player from Ballarat Victoria, belong to the modern Catholic Church. Both are followers of the rabbi from Nazareth. Each, in his own way, was profoundly at odds with the times. But then so was the rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified because of the challenge he was regarded as posing to both religious and civil authority. A Church which does not challenge the society within which it is, is not the Church of Jesus Christ. If one considers the history of the Church, it involves constant challenge. Both Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, and Cardinal George Pell, in different ways, suffered for their faith. For each, truth is not a set of abstract concepts, but is ultimately embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
4 February 2023