ROME — The first evening Australian Cardinal George Pell was incarcerated, he began writing a record of his thoughts and experiences in the form of a diary.
“I am now at the quiet heart of the storm, while family, friends, and wider church have to cope with the tornado,” wrote the cardinal, who had been convicted — against his adamant denials and refutations of the allegations — on five counts of sexual abuse of a minor in the 1990s.
Released Dec. 15 by Ignatius Press, the cardinal’s Prison Journal is the first of three volumes of these entries and details the run up to the cardinal’s first — and failed — attempt to appeal his conviction. In the end, 404 days of solitary confinement passed before the former chief of Vatican finance was acquitted in April 2020 by the High Court of Australia in a unanimous 7-0 decision.
Throughout the over 300-page book, Pell composes prayers, details scenes of daily life in prison and comments on events in the church and the world. At times, he also critiques the direction of the church under Pope Francis.
“Fidelity to Christ and his teaching remains indispensable for any fruitful Catholicism, any religious revival. This is why the ‘approved’ Argentinian and Maltese interpretations of Amoris Laetitia are so dangerous,” the cardinal wrote in reference to Pope Francis’s 2016 letter that some argue relaxed the church’s ban on access to the sacraments for people who are divorced and civilly remarried.
“They go against the teaching of the Lord on adultery and the teachings of St. Paul on the necessary dispositions to receive holy Communion properly,” the cardinal wrote.
While readers of the volume will recognize in the entries echoes of the strong defenses of traditional moral values that have marked his episcopacy, Pell also said that prison had changed him by highlighting the value of suffering in Christian discipleship.
“I became more open in my own life to the basic Christian notion that progress is through suffering,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service Dec. 18 at his residence in Rome. “I knew we were saved through the suffering and death of Jesus, but that was good for Jesus.”
Now, “I understand a little bit better that suffering can bring growth,” the cardinal said, and “it means that the hard times the church is suffering … is not necessarily bad for the church. A little bit of adversity is necessary.”
The form of suffering Pell said he experienced was not material, as he praised the “humane” treatment he and other inmates received from the prison staff. Instead, the cardinal’s anguish resulted primarily from the lack of human contact and foreshadowed the pains of many who in 2020 have been isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the great curses of modern life is loneliness,” Pell said, “(think of the) terrible isolation of a lot of old people just yearning for the sight of another human face.”
A fixed daily routine as well as praying the breviary, or Divine Office, helped the 79-year-old cope with the monotony of prison life, while a great source of inspiration were the over 4,000 letters he received from friends and supporters, including retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, both of whom offered messages of encouragement to the cardinal.
Asked what he would suggest to Christians who are unable to spend Christmas with loved ones because of pandemic-related restrictions, Pell reflected on his last Christmas, which he spent alone in prison.
“Remember it is the feast of Christmas; everybody rejoices at the birth of a baby,” he said. For many, “Christmas is a wonderful family feast. But for people with faith,” Christmas is about the transcendent God becoming incarnate for the salvation of each individual person.
“God is interested in each one of us, and if you can believe that, it’s a consolation,” he said.
Looking forward, Pell said he will divide his time between Australia and Rome, where he has an apartment a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square and continues to take an interest in the ongoing financial reform of the Vatican, now from retirement.
“I have a lot of friends in Rome, a lot of friends. And there’s always something happening here,” he said.