Cardinal George Pell’s final years in Rome

Cardinal George Pell’s final years in Rome

Cardinal George Pell gives an interview to EWTN News at his home in Rome in December 2020. / Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jan 12, 2023 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

Cardinal George Pell arrived in Rome on Sept. 30, 2020, in the midst of Vatican financial scandals and the immediate aftermath of the resignation of his once-rival, Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

Pell returned to the Eternal City after defending himself against abuse charges in his home country of Australia for three years. In April 2020, Australia’s High Court overturned his conviction and ordered his immediate release from jail.

After more than a year behind bars, Pell’s time in Rome was marked by a level of activity impressive for a man entering his eighth decade of life.

The Australian cardinal published three volumes of his prison journals. He had interviews, lunches, and speaking engagements in Rome and abroad. He did not neglect prayer, either, in what ended up being the last two years and three months of his life.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at his Rome apartment, one block from the Vatican, on Sept. 30, 2020. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Shortly after his return to Rome, he could be seen at the entrance of the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, where he had come to the parish’s regular eucharistic adoration, prayer journal in hand.

He could be spotted regularly, in the two years that followed, on the streets around the church and his apartment, one block from the Vatican.

One time, when a reporter stopped to introduce herself to his personal secretary, the young priest had to run to catch up with the gentle giant, lumbering, walking stick in hand, about 300 feet ahead.

“We’re late for adoration,” the winded Father Joseph Hamilton explained.

Pope Francis received the exonerated cardinal — his former finance chief — on Oct. 12, 2020, at the Vatican.

In January 2021 Pell spoke in a webinar about financial transparency in the Catholic Church, welcoming Pope Francis’ inclusion of laywomen on the Vatican’s economy council.

He said he hoped “clear-headed” women would help “sentimental males” do the right thing concerning Church finances.

The former head of the Archdiocese of Sydney and Diocese of Melbourne, Pell also met frequently with the priests of Australia living and studying in Rome.

Father Michael Kong, 39, met Pell in 2021. He told CNA he saw the cardinal about once a month or so together with other Australian priests. Pell also attended functions at the Australian embassy.

Father Michael Kong at lunch with Cardinal George Pell in summer 2022. Credit: Father Michael Kong

Kong described Pell as a pastor, father, and friend.

“He was very friendly and he always asked me how I was doing,” the priest said. “He always asked me about my opinion on certain issues and media and things.”

The Melbourne priest is studying Church communications at Rome’s University of the Holy Cross.

He said for the Australian priests in Rome, Pell was “a good pastor, a good shepherd, a spiritual father, or even a grandfather.”

Kong said the cardinal was always kind to the random people who would approach him on the street to say hello.

“I witnessed that he was a man of strong faith in God, of course,” he said, adding that Pell had a “gentle and humorous manner” with people.

In May 2021, Pell led a eucharistic procession at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum.

Speaking to EWTN News, Pell said: “I’m very pleased to be here. I gather it’s a student initiative, led by students, a wonderful example of faith in practice.”

“I think it’s important after COVID to get back to a regular church routine of prayer and worship,” he continued. “I’m not sure in the long run that COVID will change too much, but it might have given another excuse for us to get a little bit slack, a little bit relaxed, in our approach to our prayer and worship, and we’ve got to battle against that.”

Cardinal George Pell leads a eucharistic procession in Rome on May 13, 2021. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Pell also had a good relationship with journalists and media. He collaborated with EWTN on multiple occasions, including taped and live interviews the week of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, just a couple of weeks before his own sudden passing from a cardiac arrest.

“What I knew about him was, I think, what many Catholics knew about him, which was really the high-profile case,” Colm Flynn, a journalist working with EWTN, told CNA.

From 2020 until this month, Flynn interviewed Pell about five times, for both TV and radio.

Flynn said he thought the cardinal would be reluctant to do media interviews after his return to Rome. But it only took a bit of time to build up the trust of Pell and his secretary.

“And then I was surprised when I first met him that there was a different side to Cardinal George Pell than the one that I had seen portrayed in the media,” Flynn said. “There was this gentle and kind side to him that you often didn’t see in other places or hear about. So I was lucky enough to kind of see that side of him over the past couple of years.”

“On top of that he was always quick to offer a word of support and encouragement to me and to the team at EWTN,” he said.

In March 2022, Pell celebrated Mass in memory of Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia.

At the Mass, which marked the sixth anniversary of Mother Angelica’s death in 2016, Pell commented on the nun’s “feisty character.”

“Mother was a flesh-and-bone figure, energetic, pushy, aggressive for the Gospel. She was not well named as it will be difficult to think of anyone who was, in some ways, less angelical,” he said in his homily.

The same morning as the Mass, the Rome marathon had blocked people from crossing the main thoroughfare in front of St. Peter’s Basilica to arrive at the church.

“I had a little difficulty getting across the Via della Conciliazione here because of the marathon,” Pell commented. “And I had to employ an ounce of Mother Angelica’s direct approach to be able to get here for the Mass. So we thank God for that.”

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