Paul Collits Quadrant Online 16th January 2023
This week past there has been pretty much only one story in the news. It is, of course, the passing of George Cardinal Pell, Australia’s globally known and mostly respected titan of the Rome Church. Perhaps appropriately, he died in the Eternal City, (I suspect) his favourite place. A couple of personal experiences since Pell’s death provide a little flavour of the nature and intensity of the reactions his death occasioned. The first was the sister of a friend, who, out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation, randomly offered – “Oh, isn’t it great that that Pell is dead!” The second is the wife of another friend, who, when she asked me if I thought Pell had “done it”, and when I said “God no”, she simply stared at me in almost speechless disbelief until, “Why would someone the complainant go through all that if it weren’t true?”
Funny how these two vignettes just about sum up all the bile visited upon the Cardinal since that dismal day in 2017 when VicPol, after leaking slanders for months, finally and formally announced Pell was being charged with the heinous offences with which, by now, every Australian must be familiar.
Even, or perhaps especially, in death, George Pell still seems destined to ignite white hot emotions. I had always hoped he would lead a longish, post-prison life of peace, freedom, quiet reflection and robust scholarship, if only to put some space between the peak years of active Pell hatred and his final passing. This might, just might, have silenced his enemies who had mercifully gone silent since the timely analysis of Justice Mark Weinberg and then the wisdom of the seven High Court judges who freed an innocent man.
It is not to be. The Pell Wars have resumed.
Tony Abbott, not unexpectedly and irrepressibly, has described the late Cardinal as “a saint for our times” in an encomium that will only cement Abbott’s reputation as Australia’s second-most-hated man. But perhaps there is another category of Christian sainthood that George Pell might equally fit. One question raised by his life of being hated for his faith: is George Pell Australia’s primary candidate for “white martyrdom”? What is a white martyr? According to Faith magazine:
While we may never be asked to undergo torture and death for the sake of our Christian faith, we can still be martyrs.
When the early church persecutions waned in the fourth century, some Christians began to find other ways to live out the spirit of martyrdom. They called it “white martyrdom” – in contrast to bloody martyrdom – and they embraced the ascetical practices of fasting, praying and almsgiving, as well as more rigorous and unusual forms of penance.
Some lived on pillars and stayed until their deaths. Their austerity was in contrast to the decadence of the culture surrounding them. Most of us have a hard time imagining or even understanding this kind of practice.
Another definition of “white martyr” (from Mr Wiki) goes like this:
A believer was bestowed the title of red martyr due to either torture or violent death by religious persecution. The term ‘white martyrdom’ was used by the Church Father Jerome, ‘for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism’.
White martyrdom is typically defined as being persecuted for the faith, but never with the shedding of blood. It consists of living a life boldly for Christ, yet never being asked to die for it.
The fit seems very tight. Like two famous red martyrs with whom George Pell might best be compared, Jesus Christ himself and Thomas More, the Cardinal spoke truth to power, challenged inconvenient propaganda, corrected error and confounded the expectation that he would roll over and bow before the secular state.
Whether or not George Pell knew what was coming when he eschewed a promising football career with the Richmond Football Club for the Son of God, he placed himself in the line of fire, as fearless truth-tellers do. And didn’t the fire come! He wasn’t entirely ascetic, of course. He enjoyed the regular benefits of a good red and a social life of plenty, having, as he did, a gift for friendship, despite his undeserved reputation for prickliness.
But for God he did humbly offer up any chance at popularity, as serious Christians in the public square now seemingly must. The Cardinal somehow incited public and official hatred without remotely trying to. He ended up giving his reputation, his freedom – infamously, for more than 400 days – his health and possibly his life, to his God. He constantly ran the gauntlet of confrontation with his opponents by speaking truth to earthly powers and dominions. He attracted more vicious enemies and denunciations than just about anyone who isn’t a serial killer or a Nazi anti-vaxxing conspiracy theorist.
When considering the life of George Pell it sometimes seems that two different people are being spoken of. I cannot think of anyone else in my lifetime about whom this could be so easily said. Reading the Catholic and (thankfully) the Murdoch media, we find dispassionate accounts of a great Australian, a holy man of God, a man of conviction who stood up for his beliefs, one who acted on his core beliefs with firmness and resolve, a plain-speaking man, a towering Churchman, a highly intelligent and widely published scholar/writer, a mover-and-shaker (a player), a man with the common touch whose personal warmth and charity were apparent to all who knew him. It is telling that those cheering most loudly at his release from prison were fellow inmates.
Reading and hearing from the leftist media and politicians, we are presented with a child molester and protector of priest-paedophiles. The Saturday Paper, for instance, marked the Cardinal’s death with a rehash of the “crimes” for which he wasn’t tried. Written, inevitably, by Pell-hater-in-chief Louise Milligan, who has no doubt been itching to get the last word against a man who now is beyond his capacity to retort. Such contorted, spittle-flecked, embittered ex-Catholic anger! (I haven’t bothered to consult The Age, SMH, ABC or the twitterverse).
The now all-powerful Premier of MelDanistan pointedly refused a state funeral without being asked for one. Ahead of the curve.
There is, though, a third category of observers of George Pell. These people are the saddest of all. They are the insipid fence-sitters who care about the reputations they have with their enemies. See under Archbishop Tim Costelloe of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Mostly, the Australian Catholic hierarchy, or at least its bureaucratic-managerial arm, has a long history of Pell scepticism. Some, no doubt, are paid-up Pell deniers. Much of it may be entirely personal and borne of jealousy, I suspect. How did this guy get to be the successor of Daniel Mannix as Australia’s premier churchman? They are getting on with their Francis-man positioning while continuing with obsequious genuflections before the secular powers with whom they endlessly hope to court favour. They pursue their ludicrous and neo-Marxist “synods on synodality”, about which George still had things to say, seemingly from beyond the grave.
Perhaps, in the shadow of his evisceration of Pope Francis, written under the pseudonym ‘Demos’, or in The Spectator under his own name, the Cardinal was called home by One who had an interest in drawing maximum attention to the wrongs now going on in His Church, and to what Pell termed a “catastrophic” pontificate. Like all good detectives, God doesn’t do coincidences.
Those who still doubt Pell’s innocence and essential goodness might profit from his Prison Diaries, as many souls already have. There is no way that those convinced of his evil values and deeds will ever do so, especially those whose day jobs require a fixated Pell hatred. The Cardinal’s goodness, guilt or innocence is not an issue of priority for those to whom he will always remain the evil gift that keeps on giving, even after his passing.
A white martyr of almost textbook proportions has gone to his eternal reward. It caught us all by surprise, and we will mourn his passing, despite knowing – to the extent that we can know these things – that he has gone to a far, far better place. They don’t get the ABC in Heaven.