Cardinal George Pell: A Reminiscence

By Very Rev Peter G. Williams AM, 12 April 2023
A 14 October 2002 file image of the late Cardinal George Pell celebrating Mass at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, for mourners of victims of the Bali bombings. Image: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney/Supplied


Since his unexpected death on 10 January 2023 in Rome, there have been many words written about Cardinal George Pell.

Some of those assessments have been very positive and attested to his extraordinary input into the Church in Australia and internationally, and others have been highly critical and, in some instances, quite derogatory. There is little doubt that Cardinal Pell could be a polarising figure and anecdotally you either fell in the camp of being “for” or “against.”

My intention here is not to add to the body of opinion, which is now accumulating at a prodigious rate, but rather to reflect on my own encounters with Cardinal Pell given that I worked closely with him during the preparations and the execution of World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.

Firstly, I remember clearly being asked to come to the Bishops’ Conference during one of their sessions by Bishop Kevin Manning, because, as he said: “The Cardinal would like to meet with you.” At our meeting, he told me of his intention to have me appointed as Director of Liturgy for World Youth Day and that he had already consulted Bishop Kevin who had agreed to release me. One thing that struck me was that he had a clear mind about what he wanted and he had thought carefully about the scope of the role and the sort of person he wanted to fill it.

Secondly, just before the Opening Mass at Barangaroo as the crowd had gathered and we were ten minutes from commencement, I received a message in the director’s tent that he wanted to see me. I thought that something must have gone wrong or there was a serious issue requiring resolution. I made my way through the crowds (estimated at between 125 and 150 thousand people) to under the liturgical platform. He was lined up in the procession with the other cardinals and bishops for the opening hymn and when I approached him I remarked: “You wanted to see me.” “Yes,” he beamed, “I just wanted to wish you good luck!” Clearly, he wanted to ease my anxiety and inject a small piece of humour into the occasion at a critical moment.

Thirdly, I had responsibility for preparing the liturgy booklet for the Dedication of the new altar in St Mary’s Cathedral by Pope Benedict XVI. In doing so, I had written a small piece to explain the significance of the relics that were to be placed in the altar as part of the liturgy. He told me in his study at St Mary’s Cathedral House how impressed he was with the booklet, and then enquired about the authorship of the paragraph on the relics. I told him, “I wrote it”, to which he replied, “It is very beautiful.” He was quite moved and I could sense his appreciation for not only what meagre contribution I might have made, but also that of my whole team.

Whilst I appreciate that there would be some people whose encounters with Cardinal Pell might have left them with a contrary view, my memories were positive.

That does not mean to say that you could not engage in combative discourse, and we certainly crossed swords on a number of occasions and over a number of issues, but he was always respectful, and I think he preferred the robust discussion rather than a disposition of obsequiousness. He was above all, as others have said, a man of his generation. There is no doubt that he was devoted to the Catholic Church, to the Church remaining strong and vibrant and remaining a significant voice in the marketplace. In that way, he was a dominating figure, not only because of his physical stature, but because he was unequivocating about his views on doctrine, morals and ecclesiology.

With the effluxion of time, others will evaluate his legacy, which I think was substantial in a number of positive ways. Perhaps we are still too close to his life and death to be completely objective, but the beauty of the passing of time is that it provides that space to revisit people’s lives with a different lens.

Very Rev Peter G. Williams AM is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia in the Diocese of Parramatta and was Director of Liturgy for World Youth Day Sydney 2008.

This article was originally published in the 2023 Lent and Easter | Autumn edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine. You can pick up your copy of the magazine in parishes and offices across the Diocese of Parramatta now or you can read the digital version here.


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