By Adam Wesselinoff, Debbie Cramsie and Marilyn Rodrigues | OSV News
SYDNEY (OSV News) — The Catholic Church in Sydney bid farewell to its former archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, in a funeral at times solemn, reverent, defiant and sorrowful, shot through with wry Australian humor, and attended by mourners from all walks of life.
The cardinal remained a sign of contradiction until the very end, with protesters’ shouts of “George Pell, go to Hell” 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 Feb. 2 Pontifical Mass of Christian Burial at St. Mary’s, the cardinal’s remains were interred in the cathedral crypt alongside his predecessors.
In his homily, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, Cardinal Pell’s successor as archbishop of Sydney, described the cardinal 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.”
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 defense, saying his “regularly reported lack of sympathy for victims is simply untrue.”
“We sympathize with the legitimate victims and are in complete abhorrence at the criminals. Our own family has not been immune to this evil,” he said.
Cardinal Pell, died unexpectedly Jan. 10 in Rome at age 81 due to complications from hip replacement surgery. On Jan. 14, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, celebrated the Requiem Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican with Pope Francis present.
In 2018, Cardinal Pell was convicted on five counts related to the abuse of two choir boys. However, the Australian High Court overturned that conviction, concluding there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
Pell spoke at length about his brother’s 404 days of solitary confinement and eventual acquittal, praising both the guards and prisoners at Barwon Prison for the humane and dignified way they treated his brother.
He emphasized that his brother was a “friend of Pope Francis” and 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,'” Pell said.
The service lasted nearly four hours, ample time for the Lay Clerks of St. Mary’s to perform a fine 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 cardinal’s 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 and humidity did little to deter mourners and supporters of the cardinal, who filled St. Mary’s to capacity, with around 2,000 braving the heat in the courtyard in front of the cathedral from as early as 7:30 a.m. to try to score a seat inside.
Some 30 bishops, 220 priests and dozens of seminarians were in attendance, including Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference; Archbishop Charles Balvo, apostolic nuncio to Australia; Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, one of the cardinal’s staunchest public advocates during his ordeal; and Father 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 the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, priests and bishops left the cathedral to distribute Communion to thousands of Catholics from all walks of who filled the cathedral courtyard.
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 marginalized 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, the New South Wales premier, the opposition leader and governor — all Catholics — were unable to attend, and sent members of Parliament well-known to the church as representatives in their stead.
Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended to bid the cardinal farewell in person.
In his own eulogy to his friend, mentor and spiritual father, 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.
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,” 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 protested the church’s views on LGBT rights and response to the child abuse crisis.
Around four or five mourners became enraged by the protesters, with police coming between the two groups.
Only one arrest was made: a man carrying a rainbow umbrella who was inciting the faithful.
Catholics traveled from around Australia to pay tribute to the cardinal, share memories and reflect on the church.
Father James Kerr, parish priest of Holy Family in Northeast Mallee in the state of Victoria — which includes Swan Hill where the young Father George Pell was assigned after ordination — told The Catholic Weekly, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, 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,” Father 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.”
Father Conor Power traveled 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,” Father 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.”
Marabel Escamilla said she had been at the cathedral since 9 a.m.
“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 cathedral courtyard before the Mass at 10 a.m.
“We’ve come to pay our respects to our great cardinal, great leader of our church here in Australia. 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.”