ROME – In reaction to the surprise death of Cardinal George Pell of Australia last night, it’s likely that a good deal of media attention will focus on the impact for the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, coming as it does hard on the heels of the recent passing of Pope Benedict XVI.

That’s fair enough, since Benedict was, in a sense, the Thinker-in-Chief for conservative Catholicism, while, especially in the English-speaking realm, Pell was more akin to its field general. He was a born battler, a former Australian Rules Football star and the son of a heavyweight boxing champion, who could translate Benedict’s lofty defense of Catholic orthodoxy into the hurly-burly of both secular and ecclesiastical politics.

Over the course of his life, four titanic battles defined much of Pell’s public legacy.

  • His crusade against what he saw as an anti-Roman affect in Aussie Catholicism, an over-emphasis on an egalitarian and “live and let live” ethos that sometimes, as he saw it, translated into going soft on Catholic faith and morals. The effort to bring his country more into the Roman orbit defined much of his career as Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Defending Catholic orthodoxy on the global stage and in Rome, where Pell did everything in his power to promote like-minded conservatives and to resist the inroads of figures he saw as compromised or fuzzy. Among other things, Pell played the role of kingmaker among English-speaking cardinals in two conclaves, lobbying successfully for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, who become Pope Benedict, and unsuccessfully in 2013 for Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.
  • Pushing honesty and transparency in Vatican finances, a battle he fought at a distance as a member of a Council of Cardinals advising the Prefecture for Economic Affairs under Popes John Paul and Benedict, and which he waged more in earnest as Pope Francis’s first-ever Secretary for the Economy beginning in 2014.
  • Pell’s struggle to save his own reputation, even his freedom, when charges of sexual abuse were lodged against him in his home country in 2017. After one jury was unable to reach a verdict, a second convicted Pell and he would ultimately spend roughly 400 days in prison before being exonerated by Australia’s highest court in April 2020. Pell would publish a three-volume set of memoirs documenting his prison experience.

In each of those battles, Pell won some and lost some, but he never lost his zest for the fight. He was an effective leader for those who shared his views, because there was no guile about him. One never had the sense of a hidden agenda with Pell; it was always right there, in plain view.

Much more will be said on each of these chapters of the George Pell legacy. For now, I’d like to say just a few words about the man I knew, as opposed to the public figure.

The last time I spoke to Pell was about three weeks ago. He’d called in part to see how I was doing in my recovery from esophageal surgery last fall, but, more to the point, to chide me for a recent article I’d written. I’d called Pope Francis “decisive,” and Pell was livid – the pope’s problem, he thundered, is that he routinely fails to act, with his dithering about the German “synodal way” the latest case in point.

Having done everything but call me brain-dead, Pell concluded by saying, “Well, take care of yourself … we need your voice. Even if you do sometimes muck it up, at least you’re paying attention.” He then hung up without waiting for me to reply.

It was vintage Pell.

I’ve known Pell since his days in Sydney. If memory serves, I think my first interview with him was during the “liturgy wars” in English-speaking Catholicism in the 2000s, when Pell led a new commission created in Rome to supervise the translation of liturgical texts into English.

I remember being stunned at how blunt he was, using peppery adjectives to describe a few of his opponents that would never see the light of day in a family newspaper. From that point on, we struck up a sort of symbiotic friendship – Pell loved getting the latest Roman gossip, and I always enjoyed his assessments of people and politics.

When I needed somebody of note to speak at the Rome launch of Crux in 2014, Pell was happy to step in, and I was thrilled – the launch took place smack dab in the middle of a contentious Synod of Bishops on the Family in which Pell was, inevitably, a leading voice for the conservative side, which I knew would guarantee media interest in our event.

Pell didn’t disappoint. The main bone of contention at that synod was the vexed question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and Pell made clear what side he was on: “As Christians, we follow Christ,” he said that night. “Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking with him.”

Some years later, Pell’s return to Rome after his legal battles in Australia more or less coincided with my return to living here full-time, which gave us the opportunity to see one another more frequently. Over conversations in his Vatican apartment – which, he informed my wife Elise and I, he had swept regularly for electronic surveillance, because the Vatican in his view has become a “police state” – or over meals at our house and in favorite Rome restaurants, Pell would share his ever-colorful assessments of personalities and issues, not to mention his often disparaging take on whatever I’d just written or said.

As the saying goes, George Pell was sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.

During one of our recent exchanges, Pell speculated that Pope Francis was suffering from an undisclosed illness related to his colon surgery in 2021 and that we’d have a conclave before Christmas. Since the holidays are over, I’d been meaning to call Pell to rib him about getting that wrong – sadly, now I’ll never have the chance.

To sum up, the George Pell I knew was brash, hilarious, opinionated and tough as nails. I never worked for him, but I know plenty of people who did, and they say he could be equal parts a bull in a China shop and the most caring father figure you’d ever meet. With Pell, literally, you got strong doses of both the bitter and the sweet.

Pell thought in “us v. them” terms, and it always irritated him that I try not to. Yet despite that, he took a genuine interest in my life and career … he was one of the first to call when I was in the hospital in October, and I was especially glad to have his prayers. After all, if Pell was even half as forceful with God as he was with everyone else, there’d be no mistaking what he wanted on my behalf!

Of course, I realize that Pell was strong medicine, and he wasn’t everyone’s cup of coffee. With such a polarizing figure, it’s hard to say anything that’s unassailably objective, but here’s my stab at it.

No matter what else one might conclude, from here on out Roman Catholicism is going to be just a little less interesting, a little more gray and dull, because George Pell isn’t around. He will be missed … by many, many, people, and certainly by me.

Requiescat in pace.