The cardinal Down Under

In the Baltimore of the 1960s, my canny pastor devised a neat scheme for getting “Father Visitor” (as the confessional doors read) to fill in during the summer for his vacationing curates: bring over newly-ordained Australians from their studies in Rome. There were no language issues (save for those of, er, accent); by the standards of student priests fresh from the Urban College of Propaganda Fidei, the young Aussies were recompensed handsomely and got see something of the United States; it was win-win, all around.

Thus in the summer of 1967 I met Father George Pell of Ballarat, who, with the oils of ordination still wet on his forehead, spent several months at my parish before embarking on doctoral studies at Oxford. If anyone had told Pell or me that, 38 years later, he would be electing the successor to a pope whose biographer I had become, I think we both would have thought the prognosticator a little mad.

I recently spent several days with the cardinal archbishop of Sydney on his home turf, where I was giving a series of lectures in support of Campion College, a new Aussie adventure in Catholic liberal arts education of which Cardinal Pell has been a strong supporter. Seeing my old friend up close and personal, in venues ranging from solemn high Mass in his beautifully restored cathedral to a wildlife preserve featuring all the strange and wondrous fauna of Australia (the cardinal, inspecting a particularly ungainly wombat: “I wonder what the Creator had in mind here?”) gave me an opportunity to ponder just how great Cardinal Pell’s accomplishment has been.

Pell, who is more a Melbournian than a Sydneysider (although he has been metropolitan archbishop of both great sees), sometimes makes reference to his great Melbourne predecessor, Daniel Mannix, archbishop of the capital of Victoria for 46 years and a leading figure in Australian public life for decades. Well, if Mannix set the 20th-century pattern for Catholic prelates Down Under, George Pell will be regarded by historians as the man who set the pattern for the 21st century. In doing so, he saved Catholicism in Australia and set it on course toward a vibrant future, evangelically and publicly.

When Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Catholic Lite was the order of the day throughout the country, with the usual results: goofball liturgy (one bishop celebrated Mass made up as a clown); dumbed-down catechesis; a collapse in religious vocations and seminary applications; the Church bureaucracy joined at the hip to the hard left in Australian public life. Reversing this drift toward theological and moral incoherence and public irrelevance was going to be very hard work. Then Pell caught a break: when his seminary faculty threatened to resign en masse because he insisted that the seminarians attend daily Mass, Pell called their bluff, accepted their resignations, filled the seminary with new faculty—and never looked back.

Religious education was reformed; new and vibrant orders of religious women were brought into the archdiocese; a John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family was launched; orthodoxy, no longer optional, became interesting again. Transferred to Sydney in 2001, Pell set about reinvigorating his new archdiocese by seeking, and getting, World Youth Day 2008. Its effects are still rippling through the Sydney metropolitan area—visible, for example, in the 300-plus young people I spoke with at a Theology-on-Tap evening in Parramatta (whose bishop, Anthony Fisher, O.P., is a Pell protégé).

And while doing all this at home, Cardinal Pell has become a major figure on the international Catholic scene. He helped create Vox Clara as a check on English-language liturgical translations. And in recent years he has become a thoughtful critic of environmental radicalism, in which he detects a new paganism filling the piety-gap in post-Christian societies.

All of this has not been without cost, as the cardinal is regularly vilified by his opponents. But the former Australian Rules football star is a battler, who knows the truth of “no pain, no gain.”

Australia and the entire world Church, owe George Pell a large debt of gratitude.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.