Cardinal Pell is being held in a prison in Melbourne, Australia. He awaits his sentence on March 13. He has appealed against his conviction on five counts of sexual abuse, allegedly for acts committed in 1996 or 1997. What has happened has shocked and hurt many people, especially Catholics. The general feeling is one of disbelief and surprise.
Nine months ago I had lunch with Cardinal Pell in a simple restaurant near his home in Sydney. From what I have read these days in the press, I realize now that he was already aware of the accusations formulated by the former choir member of Melbourne Cathedral. At lunch we talked, among other things, about the reason for his return to Australia; he told me that he wanted the truth to come to light, as he has repeated many times. And the truth, as he has also repeated on countless occasions, is that those events never took place. During that meal I realized that he was already prepared to suffer what is now a reality.
I met the Cardinal in Rome at the beginning of 2000. Along with other people, I collaborated with him in making the Domus Australia project a reality. The project consisted of adapting a building with the objective of welcoming Australian pilgrims who go to Rome and who, until then, did not have a meeting point in the Eternal City. It was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI.
I am happy to have the opportunity to publish a personal memory of a friend. Jesus had many friends on earth. He taught us to make friends and to be loyal to friends. I feel a special duty to write when a friend is suffering and being vilified around the world. I want to highlight three teachings that I have learned from him, among many other things.
SERVICE TO THE CHURCH AND TO THE POPE. Over the years I have spent many hours working and talking with him. I could see that everything he has done has always been guided in the first place, for his love for the Church and the desire to serve her. Serving the Church has often cost him misunderstandings, public vilification, incomprehension and criticism, even from some of his colleagues in the ecclesiastical assignments that he has been given. In a natural way, I have sensed that the service of the Pope and the Church, whom he continues to serve from within prison, has been more important than the loss of image or unpleasantness which it may have involved for him personally.
MAGNANIMITY. When we started working on the project, the first task was to look for a property. I have walked miles in Rome accompanying him. Everyone knows his present difficulties in walking, which were already beginning then. I never saw him spare any effort in order to achieve the goal. While promoting this project, he was at the same time organizing the World Youth Day in Sydney, developing a Catholic University in an adverse environment, finding vocations for the seminary, working intensively on the new English translation of the Roman Missal, collaborating in several congregations of the Roman Curia and doing his work as archbishop of Sydney. His desire to serve others was stronger than his need to spare himself from the fatigue caused by overwork.
FORTITUDE. In the garden of the house where I lived for many years in Rome, there is a statue of a beheaded soldier. One Saint placed it there and suggested putting on the pedestal the words of another Saint: Bernard of Clairvaux – Non est vir fortis pro Deo laborans, cui non crescit animus in ipsa rerum difficultate, etiam si aliquando corpus dilanietur. (There is no strong man working for God, whose courage does not increase when faced with difficulties, even though his body may be torn apart). These words have come to my mind when thinking about the example of heroic fortitude that the cardinal is giving us.
Although his health is good he has recently undergone major surgery. Many are now determined to destroy his honor. Other people with a lot of direct knowledge have written about the way the trial was conducted and expressed reservations. My goal here is to give a brief albeit incomplete profile of a friend for whom I pray daily and who I hope to meet soon, free and rehabilitated.