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At Funeral, Cardinal Pell Hailed for Bearing ‘Unjust Condemnation’ With Dignity and Peace

Pope Francis leads the final commendation at the funeral of Australian Cardinal George Pell in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 14, 2023. Cardinal Pell, former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, died Jan. 10 in Rome at the age of 81. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — At his Vatican funeral Saturday, the late Cardinal George Pell was praised for his “greatness of intellect and heart,” and, in an allusion to his conviction followed by eventual exoneration on sexual abuse charges in his native Australia, for bearing an “unjust and painful condemnation” with “dignity and interior peace.”

For decades Cardinal Pell was an influential, tone-setting figure both in Australia and the Vatican. Cardinal Pell died unexpectedly Tuesday due to heart complications after a routine hip surgery at the age of 81.

His funeral was celebrated Saturday morning at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals.

Cardinal Re said the day’s famous reading to “be ready, for you know not the day nor the hour” is especially apt for Cardinal Pell’s sudden death, which “took us all by surprise.”

Not only had Cardinal Pell attended the funeral of the late Pope Benedict XVI just days prior to his own passing, Cardinal Re said, but he appeared to be in relatively good health despite his age.

An ardent conservative who was considered one of the Catholic Church’s most polarizing figures, Cardinal Pell was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, receiving his red hat from Pope John Paul II in 2003.

In 2013 Pope Francis named Cardinal Pell as an original member of his council of cardinal advisors and, in 2014, brought him to Rome to clean up the Vatican’s finances as president of the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy.

He stepped aside from that role in 2017 when he was charged with abusing two choirboys while archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He maintained his innocence but was convicted in a second trial after the first ended in a hung jury, and spent over 400 days in prison before eventually being acquitted in April 2020 by Australia’s High Court.

He then wrote a three-volume set of prison diaries, providing readers with a look into his daily routine in prison and his personal and spiritual reflections.

Recalling Cardinal Pell’s life and ministry, Cardinal Re said Cardinal Pell “in many situations was a strong-willed and decisive protagonist, characterized by the temper of a strong character, which at times could appear harsh.”

The experience of his trial, condemnation, and imprisonment was one “of great suffering,” Cardinal Re said, but one “borne with trust in God’s judgment.”

He was “an example of how to accept even unjust punishments with dignity and inner peace,” Re said, saying faith and prayer were “of great comfort and support to him in this sad affair.”

As a pastor, Cardinal Re said Cardinal Pell governed both the Melbourne and Sydney archdioceses with “a strong and clear leadership” and with an “untiring dedication.”

“A man of God and of the Church, he was characterized by a deep faith and a great solidity of doctrine, which he always defended without hesitation and with courage, concerned only with being faithful to Christ,” Cardinal Re said.

Re, who turns 89 on Jan. 30, closed by entrusting Cardinal Pell to God’s mercy, asking that he be welcomed into heaven with “the peace and intimacy” of God’s love.

As is customary for the funerals of cardinals, Pope Francis arrived at the end of the Mass to give Cardinal Pell a final commendation and farewell, offering prayers and a blessing for the deceased from his wheelchair.

His body will be flown back to Australia and buried in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

Around 50 cardinals and 500 faithful were in attendance at Cardinal Pell’s funeral Mass, which is considered a higher-than-usual turnout when a cardinal passes.

Among those in attendance was Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who served as sostituto, a position akin to a chief of staff, at the time Cardinal Pell was in the Vatican and when his legal troubles began, and who is now among 10 defendants standing trial for financial crimes in relation to a contested London real estate deal.

Cardinal Pell long considered Becciu a nemesis, accusing him of blocking his reform efforts and even of possibly diverting money to Australia to help fund the accusations against him. Becciu has denied these allegations, and in the wake of Cardinal Pell’s death, he released a statement in which he said, “I pray the Lord to forgive [Pell] for feeding the slanderous suspicion that I was the one who conspired against him.”

Also in attendance was Libero Milone, the Vatican’s first auditor general, whom Cardinal Pell hired to conduct a comprehensive audit of the Vatican’s finances, but who was fired just two years into a 5-year term under dubious circumstances.

Milone is now attempting to sue the Vatican for $9.6 million in damages for wrongful termination.

The days before, Cardinal Pell’s funeral was overshadowed by fresh controversy stirred by confirmation that he had been the author of an anonymous letter on the next conclave that circulated last year describing Pope Francis’ papacy as a “disaster” and also a recent article Cardinal Pell wrote describing Pope Francis’ upcoming Synod of Bishops on synodality as a “toxic nightmare.”