Homily for Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell and Margaret Pell

16 Dec 2023
Homily for Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell and Margaret Pell

St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney, 16 December 2023

Cain killing Abel by Rubens (1600) in Courtlauld Institute of Art London

The Book of Genesis has many tales of sibling rivalry. The first brothers fight, and Cain kills Abel (Gen 4). There’s tension between Abraham’s son Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael (Gen 21). Isaac’s son Jacob fights with his twin Esau even in the womb and eventually steals his brother’s birthright (Gen 25 & 27). Jacob’s sons demonstrate the same family trait by callously, if fortuitously, selling their young brother Joseph into slavery (Gen 37). That’s just the first book of the Bible: there’s plenty more competition, intrigue and violence between siblings in the subsequent books.[1]

In the New Testament, too, there’s the rivalry between the two brothers in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15). When James and John seek preferment from Jesus, it angers the rest of ‘the brothers’ (Mk 10:35-45; Mt 20:24). And the sisters Martha and Mary vie for Jesus’ attention (Lk 10:38-42).

Of course, along with examples of sibling rivalry, the Bible recalls siblings who got along well: Noah’s three boys; Rachel and Leah; Moses, Aaron and Miriam; the apostles Peter and Andrew, James and John… So important was the sibling relationship that the Old Testament called all Jews brothers and sisters,[2] and the New Testament all Christians.[3]

Outside the Twelve and the Holy Women, Jesus’ closest friends were probably Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Their home in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, was His refuge, including during the last days of His earthly life; on one account, He chose Bethany also for His ascension.[4] While their ages and professions are unknown, it seems the siblings were unmarried. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell of a group of Jewish ascetics who ran a hospice for lepers in Bethany, and so it’s possible they lived a life of celibate service influenced by this austere religious movement,[5] but we don’t really know. What we do know is that they fed and otherwise cared for Jesus and that He was deeply distressed at Lazarus’ death, evoking the comment from the neighbours “see how much he loved him”.

Joseph revealing himself to his Brothers by Francois Gerard (1789) in Musée des Beaux-Arts

The relationship between the siblings, and their common relationship to Jesus, provides important lessons about Christian discipleship. Mary was the more contemplative of the two, as she sat at the Lord’s feet, lost in His person and words (Lk 10:38-42). In an act of deep devotion, she later anointed those same feet with nard, oblivious to the expense (Jn 12:1-8). Martha, focused on the logistics of hospitality (Jn 12:2; Lk 10:40), was more the doer, so much so she risked forgetting what it was all for.

But Jesus the friend was also Jesus the teacher. He reminded Martha of the need to put her Lord, her loved ones, and her own peace of soul before her projects.[6] When Lazarus subsequently became dangerously ill, she clear-sightedly called upon Jesus as the Lord of Health to prevent her brother’s death, and Jesus as the Lord of Life to restore it once lost (Jn 11). And so, in the midst of her grief, she declares the Church’s first Credo, “Yes Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, come into world.” (Jn 11:27; cf. Mt 16:16) Cardinal Pell recalled those words at the end of his funeral homily for his sister Margaret. In response to such a profession of faith, hope and love, what could the Lord do but recall the dead Lazarus to life—and so we trust He will do at the last for George and Margaret.

Sibling bonds can be complicated but are among the strongest we have. A source of protection, inspiration and correction, they can also be a catalyst for lasting faith. When family and faith coincide, there is an especially powerful bond, as we saw in the relationship between George and the sister he called his “best friend”. It was a friendship that sustained them through good times and bad.

At the funeral Mass for Margaret, George spoke of their parents, George Arthur Pell and Margaret Lilian Burke, after whom they were named. They grew up with their beloved little brother David in “elegant” Ballarat. They were educated in Catholic schools and their parents’ pub, learning in the first a deep attachment to the Catholic faith, and in the second how to mix comfortably with Prime Ministers, paupers and everything in-between. Both were very loyal to their family, Margaret caring for their ageing parents, and being cared for in turn by David’s family in her latter years. I can testify that George always looked forward with excitement to the visits from his family and friends.

After family, school and township, the two sought the wider horizon of tertiary study in Melbourne, Margaret pursuing the violin at the Conservatorium and Melbourne Uni, while George pursued theology and priestcraft at Werribee and ultimately Oxford and Monash. They ended up in Rome together, Margaret studying under Italy’s leading violinists, while George read at Prop and the Urbanianum. Margaret went on to make her mark in the first violins of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, while George did so in the first ranks of the Church.

Of course, whatever the parallels, George went on to outshine his relatives, friends and every churchman in Australia. A priest of Ballarat (o. 1966), he served in parishes, as Rector of Aquinas College and the Melbourne seminary, as Auxiliary Bishop (1987-96) and as Archbishop, first of Melbourne (1996-2001) and then of Sydney (2001-14). A champion of education at every level, of vocations and seminaries, and of evangelisation and youth ministry, Sydney’s World Youth Day (2008) was arguably his greatest monument. But in keeping the rudder of the Church in Australia fixed upon the apostolic tradition, he did more than anyone to save it from the fate of the Church in much of Europe where it was losing much of its sense of identity and purpose. We have much to thank him for as will those who follow after us.

In 2003 George was created Cardinal and, because his titular church was Santa Maria Mazzarello, he was known as “the big cheese” in some circles. As a speaker, writer and caucuser, he was well known around the world. At one time or another he served on most of the Vatican dicasteries,[7] and from 2013 as inaugural Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a Member of the Pope’s inner Council. Yesterday Pope Francis spoke of “the zeal, conviction, determination and vision of a man who, more than many others, understood the road that should be followed” regarding the Vatican financial reforms. The Holy Father offered “our much-mourned brother” with his motto “be not afraid” as a model to Vatican reformers going forward. No Australian has done more for the Church international.

Following a media, political and police witch-hunt, Cardinal Pell was tried and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Even after being unanimously exonerated by the High Court, he continued to be demonized by some. The Book of Proverbs says that “A friend is always faithful, but a sibling is born especially for time of adversity.” (Prov 17:17) Margaret remained his biggest fan, as well as possibly the only one who could tell him he was just plain wrong and being pompous to boot! Though George deeply regretted the anguish his “misadventures” caused his family and friends, he insisted on Christian forgiveness and perspective. As Paul put in our epistle, “I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet to be revealed, which is waiting for us.” (Rom 8:14-23)

The prophet Isaiah dreamed of the time when the Lord will destroy Death for ever, wipe away every tear, and host a banquet of rich food and finest wines (Isa 25:6-9; cf. Rev 21:4). The prudes who prepared the Church’s lectionary left out the wine bit, something this son of a publican and stickler for accurate liturgical texts would not have approved. At Margaret’s funeral, George reminisced about his holidays with various relatives and friends. Margaret always took charge of the meals, as no-one would trust George to cook: he was as challenged by the electric toaster and microwave as he was by the computer and the mobile phone. He went on to describe Margaret as “a good sport, entertaining company, capable of plain speech and of sound but occasionally direct judgments”. Much of the same might be said about her brother. George also had a great gift for friendship and was loyal to a fault to his friends and allies.

Margaret died “somewhat unexpectedly” on 16th December 2021, the fifty-fifth anniversary of George’s ordination to the priesthood in Rome, which she had attended. George died a year later, on 10th January 2023, most unexpectedly. Because the lives of these siblings were informed by a deep Catholic faith, they were both prepared. Like the Bethany siblings, they had invited Christ into their hearth and hearts; they understood clearly with St Paul what it means to cry out “Abba Father” as trusting children of God, and to be willing to share in Christ’s sufferings so as to share also in His glory (Rom 8:14-23). Though George reported against himself that Margaret was surprised how spiritual his prison journal was, the George I knew was in fact a deeply prayerful man and this was the secret of his tranquillity through every challenge. Though in his latter years he might sleep through a good part of his holy hour, he still made one when he could, and was faithful to Mass, Divine Office and Rosary to the end. Perhaps the cruellest aspect of his false imprisonment by a corrupted Victorian legal system was the prohibition on his saying Mass even alone in his cell.

Dear friends, Psalm 133 begins “How good and how pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity! It is like precious chrism on the head and beard…”. George and Margaret’s faith and friendship in Christ is a powerful witness to us all: that Christian charity conquers every injustice or heartache, even death itself, that it sustains us in many good works, and so builds up the kingdom of God. As lovers of God throughout their lives, may they now rest together in His loving arms.

Word of Thanks after Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell and Margaret PellSt Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney, 16 December 2023

On the Cardinal’s grave amidst his many achievements is his coat of arms, on which we read the words of Christ echoed by Pope John Paul II: Be not afraid![8] At the bottom is the motto, found also on Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s tomb, Christum et ecclesiam vehementer dilexit: He loved Christ and the Church vehemently. The mottos capture well the man and, indeed, his sister.

My thanks to all who have participated in this act of worship and intercession for the eternal reward of Margaret Anne Pell and George Cardinal Pell. Thanks also to the family who suggested this Mass and so generously shared George with the rest of us for more than 60 years. We entrust the two siblings to our merciful Father, confident that, as we all approach our deaths, we will hear Christ’s motto and George’s: Be not afraid!

[1] E.g. Abimelech kills all seventy of his brothers to secure his throne (Jud 9:5); Absalom has his brother Amon killed (2Sam 13:28-29); Solomon his half-brother Adonijah (1Kgs 2:24-25); and Jehoram all his siblings (2Chr 21:13).

[2] Ex 2:11; 4:18; Lev 10:6; 25:46; Num 20:3; Dt 1:16; 3:18,20; 18:18; Ps 133:1 etc.

[3] Mt 5:22-24; 7:3-4; 18:21-35; Mk 3:35; Lk 22:32; Jn 6:10; 20:17; Acts 2:37; 11:12; 13:15; Rom 14:10-21; 1Cor 5:11; 8:9-13; 1Thes 4:6-7; Heb 13:1; 1Pet 3:8; Jas 2:14-18; 4:11; 1Jn 2:9-11; 3:11-18; 4:20-21; Eph 4:31-32; Phil 2:3-4 etc.

[4] Mt 26:6; Mk 11:1,11,12; 14:3; Lk 10:38-42; 19:29; 24:51; Jn 11:1-45; 12:1-11.

[5] 11QTemple 46:16-47:5 This is plausible considering ‘Simon the Leper’ is also from Bethany.

[6] Lk 10:38-42.

[7] The dicasteries for Bishops, Divine Worship, Doctrine of the Faith, Evangelisation of Peoples, the Family, Healthcare, Justice and Peace, Migrants, the New Evangelisation, Pontifical Mission Societies, and Vox Clara.

[8] Mt 1:20; 8:26; 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:5,10; Lk 1:13,30; 2:10; 5:10; 12:7,32; Jn 6:20; 12:15; 14:27. John Paul II, Address Ubi et Orbi on his election as Pontiff, 22 October 1978.

Introduction to Memorial Mass for George Cardinal Pell and Margaret Pell – St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney, 16 December 2023

Welcome dear friends to St Mary’ Cathedral in Sydney for the memorial Mass for Margaret Anne Pell, whose second anniversary it is, and George Cardinal Pell soon to have his first anniversary and who is buried here. I acknowledge concelebrating with me Bishop Richard Umbers, the Cardinal’s former secretary Fr Anthony Robbie, and other brother priests.

While we will of course celebrate Mass for the Cardinal on 10th January, his family asked that we have this Mass so some might attend the anniversary Mass in Rome. George’s brother David sends his apologies as he is recovering from a back operation. But I welcome many other members of the Pell family, including the Cardinal’s sister-in-law Judith and his nephew Nicholas with wife Julie, and nieces Sarah, Rebecca and Georgina; those who worked most closely with the Cardinal; and other relatives and friends.