Truth in the Pulpit

BE NOT AFRAID: COLLECTED WRITINGS. By George Cardinal Pell (Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, Australia, 2004), 306 pp. PB $25.00.

George Pell began his sermon at the funeral of his friend, Sister Clare Forbes, in this way: “Recently at the funeral of the Melbourne priest Fr. John Keaney, his twin brother Matt, a Jesuit, who preached the sermon, quoted a crusty old Irish priest who left instructions that at his funeral he didn’t want his corpse lying in the church and some priest lying in the pulpit” (271-72). The pulpit is a place in which we can tell the truth. The freedom of religion must be defended for that reason and used for that purpose. Sometimes it takes a prelate from a distant land to teach us how to do these things in the most engaging and direct way.

Be Not Afraid by Card. Pell coverThe title of this most varied and interesting collection of mostly sermons, but some columns and essays of George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, obviously comes from the familiar words that John Paul II often used from the very beginning of his pontificate, the words of Christ, “Be Not Afraid.” Certainly, Cardinal Pell is not afraid to take up almost any topic of current political, moral, or intellectual interest or controversy. Pell has a certain folksiness to him that always recalls something in Australian lore or life, or from his school days, or from his recently talking with children or the elderly. Football, Australian style, which he played, often comes up, as do his days as a student in Cambridge in England, or his trips to lands in Southeast Asia, the near-by neighbors of Australia.

These sermons in particular cover the liturgical year, the major feast days of the Church from Advent to Easter to Christmas. There are sermons on Mary, on what are called “Heroes through the Centuries.” These sermons cover Edith Stein, Frederic Ozanam, the Vietnamese Martyrs, and English Martyrs, Thomas Becket, and Mother Teresa. Pell’s talks to students are particularly frank, as are those on “life and love” issues. The sermons on deaths of friends and important Catholic figures in Australian life, including his parents, are very touching. And his long essay given to the Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge in England on conscience is quite insightful.

One hesitates to call predominately sermons “charming,” but that is often the right word for Pell’s efforts. He tells us that at one point his own father, in addition to managing gold mines and the Royal Oak Hotel in Ballarat, was a leading contender for the heavyweight boxing championship of the British Empire. He says of the Australian military hero, Sir Bernard Callinan, that “he led a small band of heroes, whose exploits will pass into Australian legend as the only Allied troops in 1942 between India and Eastern Papua who had not surrendered to the Japanese. We should always remember this” (259).

For All Saints and All Souls’ Day in 2000, Pell wrote an essay entitled, fittingly, “Because Non-Smokers Die Too.” Sometimes it seems that if you only give up smoking, you will live forever! In this essay Pell touches on one of the great heresies of our time:

So too if God is good, the scales of justice need to work out in eternity, just as they surely do not always work out in this life. If the belief flourishes that everything is forgiven—that everyone goes to heaven—even without repentance, this soon translates to being uncertain whether anyone gets to heaven, or whether there is any Godly forgiveness beyond the human forgiveness of the victims (253).

If all is forgiven, nothing is of importance. If there is nothing we can do that would prevent us from getting to heaven, what is heaven worth? What is the earth worth, for that matter?

I once had the pleasure, with the Australian Jesuit journalist, William Smith, of spending an evening with the famous Australian labor leader and controversialist, B. A. Santamaria. In his funeral sermon for Santamaria, Pell gave him credit for bringing into the open many deep fissures in modern thought:

There are minority forces in Australian Catholicism who want to subordinate gospel morality to individual conscience. Some want to use this to expand beyond recognition the limits of proper sexual activity. Some reject not only particular Papal teachings, but would like to sideline Papal authority itself. Others see the ministerial priesthood as one relic of a vanished clerical age. Even more seriously some do not see Christianity as a revealed religion. So the divinity of Christ is impugned, the Trinity redefined and the worship of the one true God relativized and minimized” (269-70).

Such conditions probably do not apply only to Australia. Indeed, throughout these writings, Pell seems to have a good grasp on public and ecclesiastical conditions in America, Europe, and Asia. In a long sermon given on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of John Paul II’s papacy, Pell remarked, in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney:

A principal point of difference between secular humanism and Christians is the value accorded life and suffering. The radical secularist view that suffering is meaningless, that a life of suffering is without value, is no longer enough for people. We know there is more to the story than this, and John Paul II has addressed that intellectually and through the public performance of his duties at such personal cost (94).
The explanation of suffering no doubt is a major and recurring theme in the life of any bishop.

Pell will go into cosmology—“All the evidence so far shows that humans are alone in the universe. The Son of God probably had nowhere else He could go except to Planet Earth!” (165). He touches on the relation of Catholicism to Hinduism. He will encourage students to study. He will give advice to priests. Pell keeps the transcendent nature of the faith in the forefront.

In a sermon on the Transfiguration, he cautioned “even we Catholics can be tempted to think like many of the people around us, that our religion exists to keep society decent and to stop individuals hurting one another” (45). He then gives a brief history of revelation beginning with Abraham to show that revelation gradually gave us a proper understanding of God, of the Trinity. “Our claim is not that at heart all the great religions have the same spiritual message. Certainly, there are similarities, but also great differences. We are in the monotheist tradition—the tradition that holds there is only one God (not just the God of our tribe!), who is adored in other monotheist religions. Buddha is silent on God; the Hindus have many gods, but there are gestures in their literature towards one great God. Islam does not believe in the Trinity, nor in the Incarnation” (45-46).

In the Sunday Telegraph, Pell deals with “new age” movements. “The ‘New Age’ does not accept the existence of a transcendent, personal God and denies the existence of any spiritual authority higher than inner personal experience” (178). Pell is a patriot and understands the uniqueness of Australia. He went to see the Return of the King and also Harry Potter. “Last Tuesday I saw the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I had read the book some time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The film was OK too” (181). He talks frankly about alcohol, organ donations, and even Roe v. Wade.

There is much more in this fine collection of writings of Cardinal Pell. He manages to keep our attention, teach us, and tell us what is essential to the faith. At his installation as Archbishop of Sydney, Pelt was blunt: “These stark realities should not be hidden from young Catholics, from young parents. A priest less parish is a contradiction in terms, because there is no parish without the sacraments, without baptism, Eucharist, reconciliation” (240). Perhaps we can sum Pell up with his own words: “The distinctive belief of Christians is our belief that ordinary everyday activities have eternal consequences” (33). If bishops do not tell us such things, who else will?

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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