Only this I want: But to know the Lord
And to bear his cross, so to wear the crown he wore
When I first learned of Cardinal George Pell’s death, I thought of those words from Dan Schutte’s beautiful hymn; for clearly, in the last years of his life, Cardinal Pell bore the cross of persecution thrust upon him because of his fidelity to Christ and His Church.
From the start, Cardinal Pell made clear his intention to use his unjust imprisonment as a spiritual retreat. That he did so is clear to anyone who avails themselves of the inestimable spiritual gift that is his three volume Prison Journal; a gift that invites us to partake of that same retreat, as he takes us, day-by-day, over 13 months of solitary confinement, through his prayer life, spiritual reflections, and offerings to God of his sufferings for the Church, the world, and countless individuals—many who had asked for his prayers, many more unknowingly blessed with his spiritual care.
He is uplifted when people share with him some of what they see as the fruits of his suffering, like the increase in Lenten daily Mass goers in his Archdiocese of Sydney, with one female lawyer writing, “Your time and suffering in jail could well be for many an aid to their own salvation.”
That suffering, he wants readers to know, is not to the extreme that we envision when we think of solitary confinement. He is well-treated by the guards; regularly visited, for shared prayer and the Eucharist, by the prison chaplain; allowed visitors and phone calls, not just with his legal team, but with family and friends, lay and clergy; has a television in his cell, where he regularly views religious programming as well as sporting events; is able to write, thus keeping his diary and exchanging correspondence with some of the thousands of people who write to him expressing their prayers and support.
That last is particularly telling, as most media reporting and commentary portrayed Pell as an international pariah, with only a small cultish following denying his obvious guilt. While certainly there are those, not small in number, who accepted the demonization of Cardinal Pell—even after his vindication—there was also, as the eminent Catholic commentator George Weigel wrote to him during his incarceration, “a global spiritual solidarity that embraces you.”
Pell alludes in the diary to other religiously motivated historical injustices that letter writers compared his to, like the 20th century Communist show trials of Catholic clergy, or the anti-Semitism that drove France’s Dreyfus scandal in the late 19th century. And he recounts his own take on his conviction. “The judge’s warnings against scapegoating were overridden by years of hostile publicity,” he recounts telling one of his lawyers. “The jury felt I was reprehensible,” a powerful churchman “deserving of punishment on issues outside the trial, where something ‘must have happened.’”
My own experiences, as jury foreman in a criminal trial over thirty years ago, and later in my years as spokesman for a district attorney, affirm that tendency of some jurors to assume that the defendant before them “must have done something wrong” or he wouldn’t be on trial. How much more so in an emotionally charged case alleging the most heinous of crimes, when the defendant is a powerful leader of an increasingly despised Church, and the media drumbeat has been pounding home his guilt.
Yet Pell’s focus in his Prison Journal is on Christ-like forgiveness—although in humility he makes clear that forgiving his persecutors does not come as easily for him as it did for Jesus.
While having “no high opinion of my accuser,” he writes, he has “no enormous difficulty in forgiving him. It is,” he adds, “more of a challenge to forgive those around him, and those who destroyed my good name in the media.”
While accepting “the obligation to forgive my enemies and pray for them,” he writes in another entry, he admits that he “choked on the idea that God loved one or two people, e.g., prominent personal opponents and enemies of Christianity, as much as he loved me.
“But of course,” he knows, “that is true”—and so he concludes another day’s entry with a prayer asking God to “keep hatred out of my heart.”
Like Christ coming into Jerusalem to knowingly endure His passion and death, Pell willingly returned from Rome to Australia to face his accusers; something he was under no obligation to do as a citizen of Vatican City, Weigel points out in his introduction to Volume 1 of Prison Journal.
Unlike Christ, however, who made no reply to the false charges against Him, Pell insisted on proclaiming his innocence, and fighting for justice. While in prison, he notes in his journal, a good friend from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney urged him to keep doing so, “quoting St. Thomas More’s statement to his daughter, ‘God gave us a brain, intellect, and does not expect me to go as a lamb to the slaughter.’”
“Issues which are wider than my personal reputation are in play,” Pell writes elsewhere, including “the principle that the person is innocent until found guilty and has a right to defend his good name against calumny.”
Most importantly, “the good name of the Church” was at stake.
“My fate has serious repercussions for the Church, especially in Australia but more widely because of my advocacy of ‘crucifixion Christianity,’” he wrote. “There seems little doubt that my social conservatism and advocacy of the Judaeo-Christian ethic have sharpened public hostility, especially among the militant secularists.”
And so, even as he offered his “humiliations, sufferings and inconveniences,” joining them with Christ’s “for the good of the Church,” he saw the need to also defend his innocence for the good of the Church.
Prophetically, Cardinal Pell reflected at the end of one day’s journal entry that “at my age especially, I should be spending more time contemplating heaven, life after death with Christ, rather than wondering what I shall do when I am released from prison.”
He lived less than three more years on earth following that long overdue release in April 2020. Please God, having borne his cross, he now wears the crown of eternal glory that Christ has won for us all, should we, too, willingly take up our cross with the courageous faith that George Cardinal Pell exemplified.
2 thoughts on “Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal: A Spiritual Retreat”
Great piece, Rick.
In the cloud of witnesses now, we have Cardinal Pell to help us bear our crosses.
So true, Monsignor. His passing seems such a loss, as he seemed to have so much more to give here on earth. But God knows best, and, with faith that he has now joined the Communion of Saints, we can, as you suggest, now call upon him to help us all bear our crosses.