Fifty years of friendship with Cardinal Pell

George Weigel

Msgr. Thomas A. Whelan, my pastor when I was growing up in Baltimore, was a striking character: Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; former Wall Street broker; high-ranking Army chaplain in World War II; world traveler; founding rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The latter two roles led to some creative thinking about arranging “coverage” at the cathedral during the summer, when he could be found abroad: one by one and year by year, Msgr. Whelan brought to Baltimore newly-ordained Australian priests who had studied in Rome, wanted to visit the U.S., and could use some money.

And so, precisely fifty years ago this month, a tall, gangly Aussie named George Pell entered my life. By the end of August 1967 he had become a fast friend of my family. Little did he nor I know that the next half-century would lead us into the same foxholes in various ecclesiastical battles; or to a shared friendship with a Polish priest, pope, and saint; or into synods, consistories, papal elections, and other adventures. We’re both a little slower and a little heavier than we were in the summer of ’67, when, if memory serves, I helped introduce the future cardinal to Frisbee at the beach. But the friendship is even closer and it is one of the great blessings of my life.

That summer, Father Pell was heading for doctoral studies in history at Oxford after ordination in Rome from the Pontifical Urban University (horsemeat was a staple on the menu in his day). His intellectual gifts might have marked him out for a scholarly career. But Providence (and John Paul II) had other plans, and rather than teaching history full-time, George Pell made history, becoming the defining figure of 21st-century Catholicism in Australia. 

Had Pell not become archbishop of Melbourne, and later cardinal-archbishop of Sydney, it’s a reasonable bet that Australian Catholicism today would resemble the Irish Church from which the Church Down Under largely descends: scandal-ridden, demoralized, intellectually shoddy, and somewhere out on the far periphery of the New Evangelization. Thanks to Pell’s courage in facing-down the Australian forces of Catholic Lite, the Church in Oz today has a fighting chance.

Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has not been cost-free. Australia is a contact-sport country, and that national tendency to hit hard extends to both the Aussie media and to intra-ecclesiastical life. George Pell’s enemies, and their media lapdogs, have not caviled to lie about him for decades. Perhaps the most absurd charge was that this man, whose sartorial style rings up “Salvation Army Thrift Shop,” kept a house full of Church finery to satisfy his vanity. As it happens (and as I wrote at the time), I had just stayed in the cardinal’s house when this nonsense appeared; I hadn’t seen a vestment anywhere, but had noted thousands of books and the current issues of every major opinion journal in the English-speaking world.

More recently, the calumnies have become much darker, as the man who designed and implemented the Australian Church’s first vigorous response to the sexual abuse of the young has been charged with being an abuser. His friends are confident that the charges, like other fanciful allegations the cardinal has consistently denied and of which he has been exonerated, will be shown to be gross falsehoods – not least because we believe Pell is telling the truth when he flatly and forcefully denies the current accusations.

There is a new twist to this dirty business, however. Since 2014, Cardinal Pell has been responsible for draining the Vatican financial swamp of corruptions that had become epidemic, ingrained, and virtually institutionalized. Given the stakes and the sleaziness involved, it would not be surprising to learn that some who would be most adversely effected by Pell’s success in Vatican financial reform may have been generating false accusations now in play in the Australian judicial system. Australia, it seems, is not the only place where hardball is played, and in very unsavory forms.

Cardinal George Pell is a big man in every sense of the word and his stamina under assault is entirely admirable. Its deepest root, however, is not his native combativeness but Pell’s faith. Its solidity, and the courage to which that rock-solid faith gives rise, may be what aggravates his foes the most.

It’s also what inspires his legion of friends, among whom I am honored to number myself – for fifty years and counting. 

COMING UP: The summer reading list

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Fifty years ago, prior to my freshman year at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, the late Father W. Vincent Bechtel introduced me to The Summer Reading List, upper-case. Father Bechtel didn’t fool around: he tossed his teenage charges into the deep end of the English and American literature pool and told us, in effect, “Start swimming.” And while I first thought of him as a holy terror, I now remember him as one of the best teachers I ever had – a guide to and through books that have remained my literary friends for life.

His judgment wasn’t infallible; assigning us The History of Henry Esmond resulted in my lifelong distaste for Thackeray. But Father Bechtel hit the mark far more often than not and to honor this golden anniversary of his introducing me to The Summer Reading List, let me offer a few suggestions that will take you beyond “beach reading” in these vacation months.

Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church, by Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press): Joseph Ratzinger was an exceptional teacher, and his talent for distilling a lifetime of learning into material accessible to a less-learned audience was never on better display than in the Wednesday general audiences of his papacy. From March 15, 2006 through February 14, 2007, Pope Benedict gave a marvelously insightful catechesis on the nature of the Church through a series of weekly meditations on the most prominent personalities of New Testament Christianity. Read one entry a day for some summer spiritual muscle-building.

Seeds of the Word, by Robert Barron (Word on Fire): A highly placed U.S. churchman once described Father Bob Barron as “the American Ambrose;” the complimentary analogy to the great catechist of Milan, who brought St. Augustine to the faith, was not misplaced. As his Catholicism series made clear, there is no one, anywhere, who does a better job of making the Church’s proposal make sense than Father Barron. Now, in a collection of his short catechetical pieces, he picks out of our often-confused culture the bits and pieces of a lost Christian heritage, and makes these fragments the entry-points for advancing the New Evangelization by presenting Christian faith in surprising, charming, and disarming ways.

Ministers at War, by Jonathan Schneer (Basic Books); Winston’s War, Never Surrender, Churchill’s Hour, and Churchill’s Triumph, by Michael Dobbs (Sourcebooks Landmark); I began 2015 thinking it was impossible to mine the Churchill legacy for anything new, interesting, or insightful; historian Schneer and novelist Dobbs proved me wrong. Ministers at War tells the gripping story of how the man who certainly saved Britain and arguably saved western civilization managed his cabinet “team of rivals,” a coalition of men who had spent most of their interrelated, pre-war political lives at daggers drawn. Dobbs’ quartet of novels is lighter, but nonetheless compelling, fare. My two favorites were the first volume in the series, Winston’s War, which chillingly captures the appeasement mentality that has, alas, resurrected itself these days, and Churchill’s Triumph, which is in fact about Yalta and Churchill’s desperate attempts to play a weak hand in deciding the future of Europe with an aggressive Stalin and an incapacitated Franklin Roosevelt.

Dvorak in Love by Josef Skvorecky (Norton): I never met the distinguished Czech-Canadian novelist Skvorecky, who died three years ago, but we had an interesting correspondence and I greatly admired his work (as Father Bechtel would have, had he lived long enough to read it). Skvorecky certainly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature more than many of its recent recipients, but his unrepentant anti-communism likely didn’t sit well with the politically-correct Swedish Nobel Committee. In any event, Dvorak in Love is a beautifully crafted, fictional re-creation of the great Czech composer’s three years in the United States, when he was introduced him to ragtime (which he admired) and produced the splendid New World Symphony and the luminous Cello Concerto, the latter inspired by a lost, unrequited love. Elegiac, tender, bawdy, and sharp-witted, Dvorak in Love is also a brilliant evocation of the Gilded Age: raucously in New York, and more gently in Spillville, Iowa.