In this interview, the Australian cardinal comments on the meeting of the Council of Cardinals with Francis, the reform of the Curia, and Lefebvrist leader Bishop Fellay’s attack on the Pope.
The Australian Cardinal George Pell, one of the eight cardinals whom Pope Francis has chosen to advise him, agreed to talk about their historic meeting (October 1-3) with the Holy Father on the understanding that “the only substantial information” available about that gathering is what Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, gave to the media. “Anything that I might say will be peripheral to that,” he said, and “as one of the Pope’s councilors, I see part of my task as defending and explaining the Holy Father, to support him in his role.”
On that basis, I interviewed him in Rome on October 17, five days after Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, speaking in Kansas City, had launched a harsh attack on Pope Francis. I began by asking Cardinal Pell to comment on that attack.
Bishop Fellay has denounced Pope Francis as “a genuine modernist” and charged that while the Church was “a disaster” before he was elected, he is making it “10,000 times worse.” What do you say to this?
Cardinal George Pell: To put it politely, I think that’s absolute rubbish! Francis said he’s a loyal son of the Church, and his record shows that. He’s very, very concerned for the day-to-day life of the people, and for those who are suffering, those not well-off and those in difficult situations. He’s a completely faithful exponent of Christ’s teaching and the Church’s tradition.
So people like Fellay have completely misread Pope Francis?
Pell: Yes, it is a gigantic misreading! In actual fact, the Lefebvrists — many of them — have misread the situation for decades. It was to Benedict’s great credit that he tried to reconcile with them, but they didn’t respond. Now the Church today accepts the Second Vatican Council. You don’t have to accept every jot and tittle of it, but it is part of the Church’s life now, there’s no way around that.
An Argentinian theologian, Father Carlos Galli, recently told me that he sees “the elder brother syndrome” emerging in the Church as Pope Francis goes out more and more to meet the “prodigal sons.” What do you say to that?
Pell: Well, I think it is up to us elder brothers, unlike the elder brother in the parable, to get behind the father as he goes to meet the prodigal son. It’s our task to help him in that, to defend him.
You and the other seven cardinal advisors had an unprecedented opportunity to sit and discuss with the Pope for three days on matters relating to the governance of the universal Church and the reform of the Roman Curia. What did it feel like being in that meeting?
Pell: I think we were all very much aware of the significance of the occasion. Nobody seems to know how long ago it is since a Pope has had such a regular group of advisors outside the Roman Curia, or what you might call a regular consistory.
In the council of eight cardinals, and also in the Council of the Synod of Bishops of which I am also a member, the discussions were substantial, frank and friendly. The Pope didn’t have a great deal to say, but he is a very good listener. He asked people to speak freely; he wanted us to speak our minds. He doesn’t like flattery, and I suspect he sees through it quite efficiently. We didn’t waste time; the discussions were useful and substantial, and he didn’t take offense at anything we said. We are councilors. We are there to offer advice, and he is certainly free to accept, reject or modify it. We all realize this and we appreciate the opportunity that the Holy Father has given to us cardinals from all around the Church. I think all this will be for the long-term benefit of the Church. I don’t think it is good for Popes to be isolated. Our terms of reference are brief, not highly-developed. We are to talk about the governance of the Universal Church and the reform of the Roman Curia. Obviously, other things will come up; he mentioned the topic of marriage and family life.
The eight cardinals will have another meeting with Pope Francis from December 3-5, and again in February 2014. One gets the impression that the Pope is pushing ahead to reach a rapid conclusion, at least on the reform of the Roman Curia. Is that a correct read?
Pell: I think that’s a reasonable expectation. Whether it will work out like that, I don’t know. I think we’ll probably meet every two months, at least until the middle of next year. It’s no secret that the cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings wanted very significant improvements in the life of the Roman Curia, and I believe that Pope Francis is completely committed to that.
Do you think that with the help of the eight cardinal advisors, Pope Francis will have a plan for the reform of the Roman Curia by mid-2014?
Pell: Who knows? I think the Pope wants to keep the thing moving because everybody realizes it’s not good to unnecessarily prolong uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanies the uncertainty.
You’re a member of both the council of cardinal advisors and the commission of 15 cardinals that oversees Vatican finances and organization. Are you confident the problems related to Vatican finances can be resolved soon?
Pell: Basically, yes! Sometimes there’s a slip betwixt cup and lip, but I think very good progress is being made with the IOR — “the Vatican Bank”; very good progress is being made by the lay committee of seven experts, which is a very competent group.
What’s the bottom line in this in-depth review of Vatican finances?
Pell: Our aim is that business is conducted according to international norms, that there are regular annual independent audits, and that the muddle diminishes.
Pope Francis has called an extraordinary synod to focus on the pastoral challenges to the family. Why?
Pell: He called this extraordinary synod — only the third of its kind — to emphasize the sorts of challenges there are to the family and married life just about everywhere in the world today.
The statistics are quite striking. The more marriages deteriorate, the more there is marriage and family break-up and the more you are undermining the foundations for human flourishing in society.
So it’s a very, very profound challenge and it shouldn’t just be taken up by the Church, it should also be taken up by governments — even if they are only concerned for the financial consequences, but obviously good governments are concerned for the human consequences, too.
Did Pope Francis consult the council of eight cardinal advisors and the council of the synod before calling the synod?
Pell: Yes, it was discussed in both places. The need for it was clear to everyone. The Pope took the decision; he’s the only one who can take the decision. He seems to have started a new synod process: he called an extraordinary synod on the pastoral challenges to the family for October 2014.
The results of that event will be fed back to the local churches for further discussion. After that it will all come back to an ordinary synod in 2015. I think there will be a slightly different topic in 2015 but, yes, there will be a substantial overlap between the two synods.
Therefore the family will feature largely in both synods?
Pell: That’s what I anticipate.
So the Pope is changing the way the synod works?
Pell: I’ve been on the synod council three or four times and we’ve never had a Pope come, sit down and talk with us for two half-days, as Francis did. The bishops are very grateful for this and for having the chance to make their input and be heard.
Does this new process give you a lot of hope?
Pell: Every process has to be well-managed to succeed. I anticipate this will be, and, whatever temporary problems there might be, I think that in the middle and long term this will very much strengthen Catholic life.
What most impressed you about the Assisi visit on October 4?
Pell: Many things were impressive, but the thing that most impressed me was the Pope spending an hour with a hundred disabled young adults, youngsters, children and babies. He greeted every one of them individually, embraced or kissed and blessed every one of them, as well as their parents and caregivers. It was a moving and Christ-like time. Everybody was very patient, and you had the groans and the cries of the disabled kids. He’s got a great empathy for the sick and the suffering, and people sense that.
He went from that Institute to the room in the bishop’s residence where St. Francis stripped himself. There, abandoning his prepared text, he spoke from the heart. How did that talk strike you?
Pell: I was very pleased to hear him say that it wasn’t just cardinals and clergy that shouldn’t be attached to “worldliness,” to the values of this world, it’s an obligation for all Christians.
After these days of sharing with Pope Francis, what is your overriding impression of him?
Pell: He’s a very good man! He’s a man who practices what he preaches in terms of simplicity and poverty, and has done so for very many years.
I think he’s a very good example of the old-style Jesuit — very well-educated, formidable self-control, self-discipline, and a long experience in a variety of positions, and certainly prayerful. The Jesuits are not famous for liturgical niceties, but he says a beautiful, beautiful Mass.
Does he inspire you?
Pell: Yes, he does. He does, and I think he will be able to make a profound and beneficial contribution to the life of the Church.
This interview was first published on the Vatican Insider website on October 28.