The Catholic Church in Sydney has farewelled its former Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, in a funeral at times solemn, reverent, defiant and sorrowful, mixed with wry Australian humour, and attended by mourners from all walks of life.
The Cardinal remained a sign of contradiction until the very end. Protesters’ shouts of “George Pell, go to Hell” were clearly audible inside St Mary’s Cathedral at several points, and the congregation bursting into spontaneous applause and shouts of “hear, hear” during the homily and eulogies.
After the 2 February Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial at Australia’s mother church, the Cardinal’s remains were interred in the cathedral crypt alongside his predecessors.
In his homily, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, the Cardinal’s successor as Archbishop of Sydney, described him as a “lion of the Church”, a “giant of a man with a big vision” who proclaimed the Gospel “shamelessly, vehemently, courageously to the end”.
“He had a big heart, too, strong enough to fight for the faith and endure persecution, but soft enough to care for priests, youth, the homeless, prisoners and imperfect Christians,” Archbishop Fisher said.
“Ultimately that heart gave out, but only after more than 80 years of being gradually conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
Cardinal Pell’s brother, David Pell, gave the principal eulogy, describing him as “a prince of the Church, a good and holy man, and a proud Australian”.
Mr Pell told mourners about the toll “the relentless campaign to smear George’s life” had taken on his family and spoke for a final time in his brother’s defence, saying his “regularly reported lack of sympathy for victims is simply untrue”.
“We sympathise with the legitimate victims and are in complete abhorrence at the criminals. Our own family has not been immune to this evil,” he said.
Mr Pell also spoke at length about the Cardinal’s 404 days of solitary confinement and eventual acquittal, praising both the guards and prisoners at Barwon remand centre for their dignified treatment of his brother.
“By the time George and his team found 1.2bn Euro that was not accounted for, his fate was sealed,” Mr Pell said. He insisted his brother was a “friend of Pope Francis” who had been given a warm welcome and an entourage of Swiss Guards by the Pope upon his return to Rome.
“A current Australian bishop, when discussing George with the Holy Father, was prodded in the chest by the Pope, who said: ‘He’s an honest man,’” Mr Pell said.
The service lasted nearly four hours, ample time for the Lay Clerks of St Mary’s to perform a superb musical setting selected with particular regard for Cardinal Pell’s support of sacred music.
Esteemed Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan composed an offertory motet especially for the funeral, based on the text of Wisdom 3:1-4 and the Cardinal’s motto, “Be not afraid.”
The long service and sweltering Sydney summer heat did little to deter mourners and supporters of the Cardinal, who filled St Mary’s to capacity, with around 2000 braving the heat in the Cathedral forecourt from as early as 7:30am to try to score a seat inside.
Some 30 bishops, 220 priests and dozens of seminarians were in attendance, including Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Charles Balvo, Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, one of the Cardinal’s staunchest public advocates during his ordeal, and Fr Joseph Hamilton, the Cardinal’s most recent secretary.
The Cardinal’s brother David and his wife Judith were accompanied by their children and grandchildren, relatives and friends.
In scenes not seen in Australia since World Youth Day Sydney in 2008, priests and bishops left the Cathedral to distribute communion to thousands of Catholics who filled the forecourt.
The congregation included dozens of women religious from the Sisters of Charity, Dominicans, Sisters of Mercy and other orders supported by the Cardinal; men and women from David’s Place, a Sydney-based community for homeless and marginalised people; leading theologians, educators and heads of Catholic agencies; young families and expectant mothers; Indigenous Australians, Catholics of Irish and English stock and recent migrants from the Lebanese, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese and other communities that have become the backbone of the Sydney Church.
The Prime Minister, and the NSW Premier and Opposition Leader – all Catholics – were unable to attend and sent faithful MPs well-known to the Church as representatives in their stead.
The Federal Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, attended to farewell the Cardinal in person.
In his own eulogy to his mate, mentor and spiritual father, Mr Abbott called Cardinal Pell “the greatest Catholic Australia has ever produced, and one of our country’s greatest sons”.
He said the Cardinal was made a scapegoat for the Church and should never have been investigated, let alone convicted.
“Had he died in jail, without the High Court’s vindication, this – today – would have been a very different event, even though his innocence would have been no less, had it been known only to God,” he said.
Mr Abbott also called the Cardinal “a saint for our times” and joked that he was already working miracles.
“As I heard the chant ‘Cardinal Pell should go to Hell’ I thought, ‘Ah ha!”, at least they now believe in the afterlife!’ Perhaps this is St George Pell’s first miracle,” Mr Abbott said.
Despite widespread negative media coverage and a tense atmosphere in the lead-up to the service, the planned protest did not disrupt proceedings. A small but vocal group of protesters clashed with mourners outside the Cathedral, with police stepping in to calm the crowd.
About 150 people protesting the church’s conservative views on LGBT rights and response to the child abuse crisis chanted “Pell, go to hell”. Around four or five mourners became enraged by the protestors, with police coming between the two groups. Only one arrest was made, a man carrying a rainbow umbrella inciting the faithful.
Catholics travelled from around Australia to pay tribute to the Cardinal, share memories and reflect on the Church.
Fr James Kerr, parish priest of Holy Family, Northeast Mallee in the state of Victoria – which includes Swan Hill where the young Fr George Pell was assigned after ordination – told The Catholic Weekly he was glad to represent the parish where the Cardinal is still remembered by many older parishioners.
“He came there as an assistant priest just after he finished his studies and they’ve got fond memories of him playing tennis and things,” Fr Kerr said. “Personally, like many other young priests I remember when I was at school looking up to this figure who was ready to speak for what we believe. He was a big influence on me.”
Fr Conor Power travelled from the Brisbane Oratory to attend the funeral, describing the Cardinal as “a courageous man who influenced many people”.
“My faith came alive at World Youth Day here in 2008. And Cardinal Pell was responsible for that,” Fr Power said.
“So many, myself included, were confident that they saw and met a man who was fearless in his love of Christ. He shared that love in ways that made a huge impression on me and my friends.”
Maribel Escamilla said she had been at the cathedral since 9am. “It was beautiful to see the support of so many people at the cathedral. We were just praying rosary after rosary as we waited in the queue to get in,” she said.
Marija Kovac was part of a group who had met to pray the rosary in the forecourt before the Mass at 10am.
“We’ve come to pay our respects to our great Cardinal, great leader of our church here in Australia. A great defender of the faith,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to be here. It’s a big part of Australian Catholic history and I feel blessed to be here.”
By Adam Wesselinoff, Debbie Cramsie and Marilyn Rodrigues.
Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Weekly, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.