Cardinal Pell, the Living Martyr


October 16, 2020

Thank you for your testimony.” With these words, Pope Francis greeted Cardinal George Pell who, on coming out of Covid-19 quarantine, went to meet the Pope in audience.

Martyr in the Greek language means “witness” or “testimony.” In essence it is the basic call of every Christian, every follower of Jesus Christ, to give testimony to their Lord in their everyday existence. There is little doubt that Cardinal Pell’s prison stay of 405 days, though innocent of the charges levelled against him and cleared by Australia’s highest court in a unanimous 7-to-0 decision, was a credible witness to faith in more ways than one.

The Cardinal has already spoken of the importance of faith in carrying him through the trial of being falsely accused. Despite differing advice about the necessity to return to Australia, it was the Cardinal’s express wish to do so and “have his day in court” to clear his name. Few believed that it would take three years to do so. Fewer imagined it would take also such a long stay in jail.

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The case was so high profile and protracted that it was not surprising that Cardinal Pell would speak of the alleged victim potentially having been used by other powerful forces to get at him and the Church. In many ways the case presents itself as a realistic harbinger of future relations of Catholics with the world. Not that history is not littered with similar examples. Pell’s own witness is a timely reminder that Church leaders may be called even to this form of leadership.

Cardinal Pell’s dramatic circumstances also bear testimony in other ways. First, to a failed financial reform now hastily being implemented only regrettably too late. Testimony, also, to avoidable collateral damage to various Church structures, including the collection of Peter’s Pence, if not the role of the Vatican itself.

While released video of the encounter between the Pope and Cardinal Pell indicates that His Eminence’s imprisonment was the initial introductory topic of discussion, one would imagine the meeting could not help but touch on the matters that have embroiled the Vatican in recent weeks: the resignation of Cardinal Becciu, the London property deal, ongoing investigations into financial reporting and transparency. In customary Vatican style, however, details of private meetings with the Pope are not released by the Holy See.

Hindsight confirms the wisdom of Cardinal Pell’s approach in attempting a reform of the finances of the Vatican begun officially in 2014 on the back of a ten month investigation by leading financial experts. That approach established three independent organs—the Council for the Economy, the Secretariat for the Economy, and an Auditor-General—who would have power to identify financial irregularities and remedy them. Pope Francis was lauded for his creation of these vital bodies, and his nomination of the competent financial tsar in Pell, widely considered capable of not stopping until the job was done.

Cardinal Pell, commenting on Cardinal Becciu’s resignation, stated: “Pope Francis was elected to clean up the finances of the Vatican.” This is important to bear in mind in any analysis of financial reform, not to mention any overall assessment of the Papacy. The Pope was given a task by the electors at the Conclave of 2013.

Very early on in his work it became clear to Cardinal Pell and his collaborators that scandals might not be a few. Indeed, it was at one press conference that Cardinal Pell indicated that the next wave of scandals for the Church, after the abuse crisis, would be financial ones. The Cardinal planned a detailed way forward, a means by which to minimize the damage. He had no idea that in addition to a material price, a spiritual price would be extracted for the damage caused, his own incarceration.

The words of this modern-day confessor of the faith have proven to be prophetic. History now relates that his advice and his “style” were too avant-garde for a Vatican, seemingly oblivious to the world around it, and far too often immersed seemingly in clerical power-plays, plots and scheming.

Cardinal Pell’s warnings may yet receive their hearing and bear their testimony. While it is clear that, if implemented, many of the present scandals could have been avoided, and a Pope could have been justifiably lauded for completing the task of financial reform, it would take external forces—a cardinal’s imprisonment, Covid-19, and rising deficits—to force a return to those oft-overlooked plans for reform. While various Vatican commentators have argued that the difference between Cardinals Becciu and Pell was simply a matter of style, one suspects the substance of the different approaches may, in time, prove themselves to be differentiated by more than style alone.

Yes, Cardinal Pell, thank you for your testimony.

In the financial environment of the Vatican, it appears that change may finally be at the door. To the prosecutors charged with sorting out the financial mess that is the Vatican finances, the Holy Father has made clear that he wants no stone unturned to identify and put a stop to corruption. Eight years into Pope Francis’s papacy, it appears that external factors are at last ensuring that the task for which he was elected may yet come to fruition.

One cannot be sure what role Cardinal Pell may play in this going forward, but perhaps we can hope that his expertise does not go unutilised. Edward Pentin, noted Vatican commentator and Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register, had this to say when I queried him on the point:

For much of his pontificate, Pope Francis has appeared to have listened less to reformers like Cardinal Pell and more to what have been called the “old guard” resistant to financial reform, as well as allowed officials incompetent in financial affairs to inflict massive losses on Vatican finances. Now he seems to have recognised these errors, and that Cardinal Pell, whom he has admired for his honesty, was right all along. That said, I think it’s unlikely that Pell will now be given a formal role in Vatican finances. In the last couple of years, Francis appears to have appointed officials committed to reform, but the cardinal could be brought in as an unofficial adviser or consultant to the Pope and Father Guerrero [Cardinal Pell’s successor and Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy].

Still, rumors continue to fly about other mounting financial scandals, accountability and transparency, and while some ‘heads may roll’, the faithful continue to have questions. In times such as our own they continue to look for witnesses. This week, one was identified. Let us pray his witness does not go unheeded.

[Photo credit: Catholic News Agency]


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