Columnist Terry Mattingly: The haunting final sermon of Cardinal Pell


Cardinal George Pell had no way to know, as he rose to preach during a spiritual retreat in southern Italy, that this was his last sermon — opening with the biblical cry, “Repent, because the Kingdom of God is near.”

Catholics should stay focused on truths proclaimed during the reigns of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he said, at the Shrine of St. Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo.

These popes “were missionaries of the truth. We don’t build the truth. We don’t have the ability to change the truth. We can only acknowledge the truth, and sometimes the truth isn’t all that pretty. Sometimes the truth is disconcerting, difficult,” said Pell, three days before his death on Jan. 10, after routine hip surgery.

“These two Popes did not affirm that the teaching of Jesus was conditioned by the time, by the Roman Empire, by the pagans. They did not claim that the essential and central teaching should be updated, radically changed. They didn’t say: ‘We don’t know what Jesus said because there were no tape recorders.’ ... As for them, and also for us, Jesus remains the way, the truth and the life.”

On this day, the burly 6-foot-4-inch cardinal faced a gathering of Catholic charismatics, not an audience of Vatican power brokers. Nevertheless, this final sermon — translated from Italian by Inside the Vatican magazine — touched on themes in his recent writings that fueled raging debates about Pope Francis and the modernization of Catholic doctrines and worship.

In that sermon, Cardinal Pell offered only one nod to Pope Francis, while noting the potential for future popes from Africa, Asia and the Global South. “Today we have a Pope from South America — praiseworthy and good,” he said.

But after Pell’s death, Italian journalist Sandro Magister revealed that the Australian cardinal — using the pseudonym “Demos” — had written a fierce March memo circulated to members of the College of Cardinals focusing on issues that loom over the next conclave to select a pope.

The Francis pontificate has been “a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe,” this memo claimed. “The German synod speaks on homosexuality, women priests, communion for the divorced. The Papacy is silent.” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg “rejects the Christian teaching on sexuality. The Papacy is silent. ...

“The Christo-centricity of teaching is being weakened. ... Sometimes Rome even seems to be confused about the importance of a strict monotheism, hinting at some wider concept of divinity; not quite pantheism, but like a Hindu panentheism variant.”

After a litany of criticisms, “Demos” bluntly warned: “Schism is not likely to occur from the left. ... Schism is more likely to come from the right and is always possible when liturgical tensions are inflamed and not dampened.”

The Catholic Left accused Cardinal Pell — who for three years served as finance minister for Pope Francis — of being a backstabber.

The Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, writing for Religion News Service, said that by “authoring an anonymous memorandum attacking Francis, Pell crossed a line. ... Pell for the first time in his life showed himself a coward. He was not willing to publicly stand behind his words.” Reese noted that Pope Francis “stood by” Pell when he faced allegations of molesting two choirboys during his tenure as Melbourne’s archbishop. This conviction was overturned on appeal, after Pell spent 404 days in solitary confinement.

During his final sermon, the 81-year-old Pell was candid, but much more restrained — focusing on praise for popes who learned the importance of defending orthodox truths as young men who clashed with Nazism and Communism.

John Paul II and Benedict “understood the role of Peter’s successor in the life of the Catholic Church. We Catholics must remember that the universal unity of the Church is not something that can be taken for granted or is facile. It is a very precious gift that we must be careful to keep so as not to damage it. ...

“These two Popes understood well that we are not the teachers of the apostolic doctrine, we are the defenders. ... All Catholics, of any age, throughout the world, also have the right to receive the same teaching that Jesus and the apostles gave in the early years of Christianity — this is Catholic doctrine.”