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‘I won’t be recommending Vatican III’: Cardinal Pell on his new role advising Pope Francis

The Australian cardinal says he will call for an overhaul of Vatican communications

By on Friday, 31 May 2013

Cardinal George Pell (CNS)

Cardinal George Pell (CNS)

When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected Pope in March, big changes in the Vatican were predicted. The new Pope did not disappoint when in April he chose seven cardinals from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia plus one Vatican official as outside advisers. The formation of this group – immediately dubbed the “Vatican Eight” or “V8” – showed that Francis was reaching out far beyond the walls of the Vatican to the wider global Catholic community. But so far there has been no hint of any major reforms. Nothing official has been added since the initial Vatican announcement which just said the eight will be advising the Supreme Pontiff “in the government of the universal Church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia”.

This lack of change in the Vatican provoked a lengthy article in the New York Times last Saturday. It went so far as to say: “Francis has not yet begun making concrete changes or set forth an ambitious policy agenda in a Vatican hierarchy that was gripped by scandal during the papacy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.”

In the hope of obtaining some indication of what might be expected from the V8, I spoke to one of its members, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney and Australia’s most senior ranking Catholic cleric. While he is said to be the most doctrinally conservative of the group, he is also known for his down-to-earth, sometimes blunt, manner and knowing his way around both Rome and the Vatican. Indeed, this year marks the 50th anniversary of his first stay in Rome. It is also the 10th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II creating him a cardinal.   

When I asked him what might emanate from the V8, leaning slightly forward he replied: “They are calling it the G8 out here. A lack of imagination!”

He smiled. Cardinal Pell certainly has an engaging manner and, despite his tall man’s stoop, looks much younger than his 72 years – probably because he is still swimming laps and because of his former prowess in both football and rowing. “The big change is that, at the moment, we will be a formal organisation to give advice.” 

Balancing a cup of tea and Italian biscuit, he added: “We will have three full days with the Holy Father in October.

“It’s a bit easier to say what it isn’t,” he continued. “In no sense is it a cabinet, so the Holy Father is not answerable to us. And in no sense are we an executive. It is vitally important that the prerogatives of the Successor to St Peter are preserved. There is no doubt that the present Pope is giving every indication of being a strong man, so that this will be the case.” 

If the V8 were only going to be advisers it seemed it would not be as effective as some commentators had hoped for. I didn’t dare ask the cardinal if there was an analogy between one of his youthful theatrical roles and the Pope’s new group. In the 1960s the young George Pell, a good baritone, had been on the stage in both Australia and in Rome, singing the part of Pooh-Bah – also known as Lord-High-Everything-Else – the hollow character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado. Despite the term “Poo-bah” now sometimes being a pejorative term, it is frequently used to refer to those with little authority or influence who nevertheless hold impressive titles. 

By chance, Cardinal Pell did happen to use a completely different analogy – one set in the time of the Second World War – to further explain the purpose of the V8.  Stressing that all popes must have up-to-date knowledge of what is happening in the vast and complex Catholic world, along with diverse channels of information, he explained: “The Holy Father – like all popes – needs access to information, not just through official sources. I sometimes use the example of Field Marshal Montgomery in the war. He had a core of middle-ranking officers who worked with him in Headquarters mostly on motorbikes and cycles.”  

Cardinal Pell then went on to describe how, during a battle, Montgomery would send these speedy officers out on their motorbikes “to find out what was going on so he could check this against what his generals and the senior officers were saying”. He concluded the anecdote by saying: “It’s an inappropriate military metaphor, but the Holy Father needs that sort of information.” 

The need to be up-to-date and informed prompted him to explain that, although the late Pope John Paul II had not created any committees similar to Pope Francis’s new group, he had been constantly in touch with a wide variety of people from many countries. Cardinal Pell added that Pope John Paul had “regularly dined with people – and also had all sorts of friends and such talking to him. It’s not a substitute for the official channels but it’s complementary.”

Cardinal Pell speaks as only insiders to the Vatican can. Being fluent in Italian, with a PhD from a Roman university and another from Oxford, over the past decades he has been invited to serve on many different Vatican committees, including two on which Pope Francis was also a member: the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. 

Again, I attempted to prod the cardinal about where we might see modifications and changes in the Vatican under Pope Francis. But he was cautious in his reply.

“I am very loath to go too far. The Vatican has made giant strides in communications. I would like to see that continue and develop.” He explained that by this he meant means of technology should be used: “The whole gamut, Vatican Radio, the internet, the Osservatore – every instrument that is used to communicate the Church which is based in the Vatican should be developed further.”

This prompted me to suggest that he may also be referring to a need for greater transparency. 

“No,” he replied. “I mean better coordination, so it will all function more efficiently. And there are some real chances to reduce expenditure.” Giving a few examples, he said: “I’m not sure that in this day and age that Vatican Radio needs to be quite so expensive, because in many parts of the world the radio has been superseded by the internet.  That is just one example.  However, in some parts of the world, such as in some parts of Africa, the Vatican Radio is very much needed.”

When I asked the cardinal about the content of what should be broadcast, he replied: “That’s an entirely different matter,” and went on to speak of better spreading the Gospel.   

As the cardinal is known to have an enviable expertise in business, management and money, it was no surprise when he suggested: “There need to be changes in the economic area – not just with the so-called Vatican Bank – but more generally there is work there to be done. “There is also a need to ensure that things are being properly done. But beyond that I wouldn’t like to venture at this stage.”  

Looking after money is something all Australian archbishops know about. In Australia, Catholicism is not only the continent’s largest religion, but with its vast network of schools, hospitals, old people’s homes and diverse charitable institutions, it is said to be the largest private property owner and the largest non-government employer.

When I suggested to Cardinal Pell that many Australians were proud that he had been chosen out of all the 205 cardinals in the world to be a member of the V8 he was self-effacing. “I don’t think I am an Australian representative. We are five million Catholics in this country. We don’t count when there are a billion Catholics in the world. Oceania is absorbed into Asia. It certainly wouldn’t be insignificant that I am Australian, but obviously Australia would have no claim to a position on that body. I think it is significant that I am an English speaker.”

Cardinal Pell’s ability to see things from a fresh angle was again obvious when I asked him if any members of the clergy in Australia were taking measures to emulate Pope Francis’s example in thrift and modesty. He side-stepped my question politely. Instead, he pointed out the enormous differences between parish priests and members of religious orders.

“The Holy Father is a Jesuit. He is vowed to poverty. Members of religious orders take a vow of poverty. Diocesan clergy don’t. But the clergy – we – shouldn’t be living extravagantly. I think that the name he took of Francis is an inspired choice. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he lived with an elderly gentleman whom he helped to look after.”

Cardinal Pell looked reflective as he added: “These are all important, symbolic gestures and they are much appreciated by people. The Holy Father has a New World capacity for expressing simple ideas very clearly.” 

As our meeting was taking place at the end of a major three-day conference on the Second Vatican Council in Sydney, I asked him if he thought that any member of the V8 would be recommending another Council similar to Vatican II. “Well, I won’t be!” he replied quickly.  

“Look at the turmoil which has followed Vatican II – none of it intended by Vatican II. But we are still assimilating the teaching of the Council into Catholic life. I think there is a lot of work to be done on that before we branch out into another council.” Pausing, he then continued saying: “I can’t see any doctrinal reasons why there should be a council.”

I asked if he thought that the results of Vatican II had been productive. “I don’t think that any of the changes weren’t worthwhile,” he replied. “The bad things that happened after the Council were not a direct result of the Council.” 

Some of the positive results from Vatican II he spoke of included the greater role for the laity, collegiality, religious freedom so that the state cannot coerce religious belief and the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular instead of Latin.

Cardinal Pell then spoke warmly about the enormous change that had come from the Catholic endorsement of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and how this had changed Australian life. “A lot of the old Catholic versus Protestant antagonism has gone… 50, 60, 70 years ago, job advertisements saying: ‘Catholics and Jews need not apply’ were not entirely unusual.”

Switching the subject to the practical problems of holding another Ecumenical Council, the cardinal put forward the argument of space and accommodation. “There are now over 5,000 bishops. Any future councils will be unwieldy unless they limit those who participate. In the previous Council there were 2,000 bishops. It might have even been more: even around 2,500.”

A sociable man, Cardinal Pell is at ease in crowds. At World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 there had been more than half a million young people, with around 600 bishops and cardinals, as well as Pope Benedict. With immense enthusiasm he told me that he would be going to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July. “We will be taking 450 to 500 from the archdiocese from Sydney alone. Four hundred Australians will then go on to work in the slums.”

The previous night at a gala dinner for the Great Grace Conference on Vatican II I watched Cardinal Pell mix freely with guests, walking around and leaning over the backs of chairs to talk to those he knew. A friend of his told me: “George isn’t often going to catch a bus, but he’s an easy, informal knockabout guy. Raised in a pub in the Victorian town of Ballarat, he doesn’t insist on formality.” 

During our interview, with almost boyish enthusiasm, Cardinal Pell talked about the vibrant atmosphere in a pub in Parramatta where, a few days earlier, he had been the guest speaker at a session of “Theology on Tap”.  He explained that these meetings, organised by students, have become a venue where somewhere between 200 and 400 young people have a few drinks and talk about faith in everyday life. Describing the informal hours he had enjoyed with the students, he added casually: “Priests there hear Confessions in corners of the pub – anywhere.” 

When we parted I was left with a better impression of him than the Australian media usually portrays. He clearly accepts and welcomes many changes, but as a strong believer in the doctrines of the Church Cardinal Pell is adamant that they will never be altered.

Four days after we met in Sydney he appeared as a witness in Melbourne in front of Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Organisations. He acknowledged that the Catholic Church within Australia had covered up the “foul crime” of child abuse and that in some cases members of the clergy had been placed above the law. It was reassuring to observe that, as a pillar of the Church he was open, direct and also humble. One can see why he will be a welcome member of Pope Francis’s new committee.