The Interviews

Australia’s Gentle Giant

An Interview with 

Archbishop George Pell

of Melbourne, Australia

By John Mallon

Word travels fast in what has become a world-wide “Catacomb Church” — those Catholics who thoughtfully embrace Tradition, orthodoxy, and teaching from the Pope and Magisterium with joy rather than with the endless carping and “spin doctoring” of dissent. (I say Catacomb Church, because these people, if outspoken in defense of sound liturgy and doctrine, often find themselves Persona non Grata in many parishes and dioceses. One American bishop has gone so far as to mock such people as “Papal Maximalists.”)

Word moves quickly among this tight-knit community which spans the far corners of the globe, and when a bishop acts boldly doing what, in another time, would simply be seen as doing his job, news travels fast of the discovery of another good bishop. Such was the case in late 1996 when the previously little-known Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne, Australia, moved to implement norms for the increased spiritual development of seminarians which were spelled out in Pope John Paul II’s 1992 document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, (I Will Give You Shepherds).


For what would seem a rather ordinary and routine reform, five staff members of Corpus Christi College Seminary of the Melbourne Archdiocese, including the rector, prefect of studies, spiritual director, and pastoral program director, resigned in protest. And their resignations were accepted. And the Pope’s norms were implemented. At the time, Archbishop Pell said about the norms, “They’re the basic sorts of things that most Catholics would already believe were happening in the seminary — daily Mass, morning meditation, morning prayer of the Church, night prayer of the Church, a Holy Hour once a week in front of the Blessed Sacrament, private recitation of the Rosary and devotions to Our Lady in May. It’s a very noncontroversial program.”

Archbishop Pell has also distinguished himself as a true leader — literally — of his flock, even leading them in the streets protesting blasphemy and insult to Our Lord and His Church.

Archbishop Pell certainly does not strike one as the attention-seeking type, and there is no reason to believe he is seeking any attention when he simply does his job as a bishop. But in these strange times a bishop’s gentle, clear and final “No” to dissent and socially sanctioned — and publicly financed — blasphemy gets attention in the Church of the West as this millennium closes. One gets the impression Archbishop Pell would rather it were not so.


The first thing one notices about him, after his physical stature, (at least 6’ 6”) and athletic frame, is a quiet, unassuming modesty. I had long wanted to interview this bishop and was suprised to see his name among the speakers at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, in Denver, USA, where I had a table promoting Inside the Vatican magazine. I had no idea he would be there. 

Spying a priest I did not recognize moving unnoticed among the crowd towards our display table, I wondered if this could be he. Seeing no tell-tale pectoral cross chain, I maneuvered to read his name badge without being noticed, and there it read: Archbishop George Pell, Melbourne, Australia. I introduced myself and assured him that if I had known at the time he also had written a Pastoral Letter on the 30th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, (along with our host Archbishop Charles Chaput), that it certainly would have been included in our special supplement on the topic published that Summer. He merely shrugged, and said he was a reader of Inside the Vatican, and when asked, he said he would be happy to do an interview. The results follow.

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Inside the Vatican: Archbishop Pell, the first I heard of you — and I think the first many of us in North America heard of you — was when you were placing the Holy Father’s directives for seminaries in your seminary. I read the wire story at the time that the faculty resigned in protest, and you simply accepted their resignations which, I surmised, took them by surprise. What is the upshot of that now?

Archbishop George Pell: Well, just a preliminary clarification, it was the faculty of the seminary as distinct from the teaching faculty. The formation is separate from the academic learning. So it was the staff of the formation seminary that resigned.  The upshot is that they resigned at the start of our long vacation, which is at Christmas. They were replaced and the seminary has been going now under the new staff for nearly two years.  The numbers are not huge but they have improved for Melbourne. When I came into the diocese we only had 13 seminarians. We’ve ordained 4 or 5, or 6 since then, and we now have roughly about 20 seminarians. So it’s not a spectacular increase but it’s a steady increase. We hope to have an intake of the same order next year. So a number of the seminarians, who, for quite some years followed the older program, found it difficult to adapt. They felt they were being asked to do the wrong thing. But things are settling down in the seminary and things are going ahead.

The trustees of the seminary have just adopted a reform of the philosophy studies. Before, they were not doing very much philosophy at all, so now they will be doing two years of sound philosophy and I’ve just appointed a very high class Catholic layman from Scotland who was teaching at Melbourne University and Latrobe University — which is another Melbourne university — who was teaching philosophy. He’s a fine lecturer, a first-rate philosopher, and he will very much bolster the staff in the philosophy department.

You mentioned in your talk last night that we North Americans have it pretty good, but dissent is still a big problem in the United States. It is no doubt much worse in Western Europe — in Austria and Switzerland for example — but how is it in Australia?

Well if I could shorthand the context, I think our religious situation in Australia is somewhere in the middle between the religious situation in the United States and Britain. Catholics are the biggest denomination in Australia, we are 26.9 percent. We have roughly 20 percent weekly church-goers — that figure is a bit of an underestimate, because unfortunately a lot of people in Australia now would regard themselves as regular church-goers but only go to Mass two or three times a month. So the statistics understate the monthly church-goers. A major problem now is with our young people, where the percentage of church-going is much lower.  

So we’re a less religious society than the United States, the practicing rate I think is about 40 percent here isn’t it? I know it varies, but, roughly that. But we’re about 20 percent.  I know the church-going rate is about half of what it is in the United States.  We’ve got no equivalent in Australia to the Protestant strength especially in the southern states of the United States.

So you don’t have the sort of “allies” that we have in the United States?

No, No, we don’t have the allies, Australia is a much smaller, simpler country, but we do have a much stronger tradition of Christian involvement in politics. One of the small surprises to me as an outsider is that the Christian laypeople haven’t combined more effectively on this issue and that issue in the United States to support particular issues which are very important for Christians. 

I was very impressed by a news report I saw from Australia when Mr. Serrano’s so-called “art” exhibit arrived. What impressed me, from what I read, was that you took the leading role in protesting it: taking to the streets with your people, and leading them and having the confrontation with the parties involved in this exhibition. It seem that in this kind of activism in the United States it’s often the laypeople taking initiative themselves, while the bishops kind of hang back and give cautions — an encouragement here, a qualification there. I was very impressed that you took the leadership role and really shepherded and led that protest and took a real hands-on approach.

There’s no doubt that I had the large responsibility for the central thrust, but not for everything which you describe. One of the things we’ve learned, and it’s very rudimentary, is that there are traditions of anti-Catholicism in Australia — they are not as long-standing or as virulent as they used to be in the United States — but nonetheless they have existed and continue to exist. So we really can’t do anything effective publicly as a Catholic body by ourselves. You have to work in a coalition of like-minded people, often fellow religious people, and sometimes, say, on life and justice issues, people of no religion at all. 

What I did have a big role in was getting a coalition of the Christian leaders to object to this blasphemous photo — we didn’t object to it being shown, say, in a private gallery if they were going to do it, but the National Gallery of Victoria is one of the two most prestigious art galleries in the country. It’s heavily subsidized by the government, and we said publicly that we couldn’t see any reason why the government should subsidize insults to Christians. Although we didn’t approve of it, we didn’t object publicly to the rest of the photo exhibition which was full of pornography. 

Given that we follow the British system of common law, we also appealed to the Supreme Court to say that the exhibition was blasphemous and should be withdrawn. The judge found against that and said that while it might be blasphemous, there has to be some threat of public disorder or outrage for it to be blasphemous. Some expert legal opinion suggested to us that he had made an error in law somewhere along the way. But we accepted his decision. We didn’t appeal. Now, I did nothing more at that stage, but the Catholic people themselves started to turn up in front of the National Gallery, just standing there with placard, many of them praying, some of them praying the Rosary. They were completely disciplined. Some schools bussed in children, and of course it created quite a deal of attention. 

Now there were a couple of incidents of people, a couple of youngsters, who weren’t from our Catholic groups, who attacked it with a hammer. I know there was considerable opposition to the exhibition. There was overwhelming support for our position. The daily newspaper ran polls in which you could phone in as to whether you agreed with what I was doing, and on one poll my position received 93 percent support, on another poll it received 88 percent support. Public opinion was massively in our favor and made the very obvious point that if something like this was being done to something very sacred to the Australian Aborigines it would be culturally impossible. 

Or, if this sort of insult was offered to our small Moslem community, there would be outrage — it would never have occurred. It was because we are a majority and I suspect the gallery thought they could get away with it, that they might have even gained a little bit in publicity from our objections. But they radically underestimated the depth of the public opposition. Anyhow, for whatever reason, they decided to cancel the whole exhibition. It was a very good thing.

It sounds like what happened with the same exhibit in the United States. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. But I understand you received a great deal of praise and accolades from other religious and civic leaders, as well, is that correct?

Well, all the leaders of the major Christian denominations supported our position, the Jewish leaders did also. I had a rabbi phone me up to say that in his synagogue they were praying for the success of our position. I had letters of support. The Moslem community came out publicly supporting our position, and what particularly pleased me as a bishop was that the Catholic community was almost entirely united in favor of our position and I found that particularly gratifying.

In dealing with these situations I’ve noticed from reading some of your columns in your newspaper, and from reading some of your homilies, that I have come to greatly love listening to the English language from people from other English speaking countries, because the English language can be used beautifully, simply and clearly, or it can be used for gross obfucation as we’ve seen recently in the United States at the highest levels. I was reading some of your writings and I was impressed by the simplicity and directness contained in them. Now, evidently there was a controversy in your archdiocese with some homosexual activists demanding Communion. I read what you wrote in response and it was so simple and straightforward that I didn’t see how anyone could argue with it. Could you fill us in on that situation?

There were a number of homosexual activists who, I think, on four different occasions — certainly three — came to the cathedral publicly wearing a sash as a sign that they do not agree with the Church’s condemnation of homosexual activity, and they wanted to publicly receive Holy Communion wearing this sash. In other words, they wanted us to publicly change our rules. I pointed out very obviously that it’s got nothing to do with orientation; we pointed out it’s got nothing to do with previous behaviour that has been repented and forgiven. And also if a person comes up to Communion in good faith, disagreeing with the Church’s position, nobody is going to quiz them when they come to Communion as to what they might or might not be doing. They’ll answer for that to God. 

But just a day or so before I left to come here, an activist and a mother had a very sad story of a young homosexual boy who suicided. They came to the daily Mass wanting Communion with the activist wearing the sash.  They announced that they were coming. The administrator of the cathedral said at the start of the Mass that he was offering his Mass for the young boy who suicided. The boy had been ostracized by his classmates at a Catholic school, then got into the homosexual scene, and was appalled by the promiscuity, and unfortunately suicided. 

Anyhow, his mother had come earlier unbeknownst to me, and I had refused her Communion when she wore the sash. She came up, said that she was the mother of a homosexual, that she wasn’t homosexual herself, a lesbian herself, and I said, “Well, in that case take your sash off, and I’ll give you Communion, but if you continue to wear the sash as a sign that you want the Church to change its teachings then we can’t do that.”

Yes, you said that if someone publicly disagreeing with, or rejecting Church teaching cannot receive Communion—

No, I said that if someone came up wearing a sash or carrying a placard saying “I’m an unrepentant child molester, I’m an unrepentant adulterer, I’m an unrepentant bank robber, obviously, we couldn’t give them Communion.”

You had mentioned something about some possible government changes in Australia, and you  mentioned that there is a discussion about moving from being a Constitutional Monarchy to Constitutional Republic. Could you fill us in on that?

Yes, the head of state in Australia is the Queen of England. She is represented in Australia by a Governor General.  We follow the Westminster system of government, which, actually, I very strongly support.  That means our chief executive, the Prime Minister can be regularly questioned in Parliament by the opposition, and I think that is a very good thing. 

So the question before the Australian people now is whether the head of state should continue to be the Queen of England or whether we should complete the slow peaceful evolution and have our own set of constitutional arrangements. Now, almost coincidentally, the first explicitly Australian nationalists, or patriots, were Catholics. Even earlier in this century the British flag was flown — we federated in 1901 — the British flag was flown more commonly than the Australian flag. There was a great loyalty to the British Empire. Irish Australian Catholics obviously weren’t too keen on that, and very early on they adopted a rhetoric and a genuine Australian patriotism. 

Now, I believe that we should move on to becoming a republic. I was an appointed member to a constitutional convention which the government set up. I was the only Catholic clergyman there. There was an Anglican archbishop too, so I strongly support the move towards the republic and I had the privilege of actually speaking and moving the motion at the convention to adopt a bipartisan model, a republican model, which will be put to the Australian people next year in a referendum as to whether we go to a republic or not. 

We have the Synod on Oceania coming up soon, what are your thoughts on that? Do you have some hopes, some plans?

It’s a very disparate group of nations, The situation in Australia and New Zealand is somewhat comparable, but Papua, New Guinea, is a radically different situation and even the Pacific Islands are quite different. In Australia and New Zealand, in terms of regular practice, the churches are in a slow decline. There’s no decline in the services we’re offering to people — in fact, they’re expanding. People need more of our education and welfare support, and in a certain sense were more into the mainstream of both societies, but declining.


In the Pacific Islands, and in Papua, New Guinea, its very much a situation of growth. They’ve got great, great problems but they’re growing as far as the Church is concerned.  So obviously we have hopes that by coming together we can better assess our situation. We can’t do much to change the pressures against us, but we can work to discern more clearly so that we have our own house in order and we are not assisting the decline, but we’re resisting it effectively. That’s my ambition.

I noticed in going through your web site there was a lot of material on the Aboriginal people.  Are you doing a great deal of work with them?

Yes, it’s a very significant problem, they’re not a big percentage of people; the government is putting a lot of money into the problem, and the Catholic Church is involved as it has been for many years.

What is the problem in a nutshell?

The problem in a nutshell is that the things that keep a people together amongst the Aborigines have been destroyed in many cases, and they can’t be repaired just by money. So, alcoholism, family breakdown — some people now are frightened of an AIDS epidemic amongst them.  Many of the women’s groups — the women’s leaders are emerging amongst the Aborigines, but with the men the story is not so successful. It’s a major challenge — certainly for myself, and I suspect many others are not entirely sure as to what we might do that will definitely or significantly improve the situation, but we’re working regularly at it.

Archbishop John Polding, O.S.B., the first bishop and archbishop in Australia during the last century consistently and publicly spoke out in favor of the Aborigines, and against abusing them and their position. And though all the work we’ve done on our missions with the Aborigines, right from the early days, has been condemned as being paternalistic — and there’d be some truth in that. But one of the bishops from up north told me on the centenary of Catholic mission work in a particular area, that when the priest first went there, for ten years he didn’t get one convert. The number of Aborigines there, through tribal fighting, was down to about one hundred. The only reason the Aborigines allowed him to stay, or didn’t kill him, was because one of the Aborigines had a dream, or a vision of a beautiful woman, and somehow they connected the arrival of the priest with this vision that the Aborigines had, so they left him alone. 

There are now a couple of thousand of those people, and the bishop celebrated Mass for them. Not all of them are regular church-goers by any means, but about a thousand of them turned up. 


So it’s not inaccurate to say that in that particular area, without the Catholic mission, they very possibly would have died and disintegrated. And that story is not unique just to that part of the country. So, I don’t make extreme claims for the work the missions did, but there’s no doubt that in an explicitly paternal way, they did a lot of marvelous work for the Aborigines at a time when nobody was really much interested in doing anything.

That’s often the story. There was just one other thing I wanted to ask you. To my knowledge, Archbishop, I think you and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. were the only two bishops in the world who wrote a pastoral letter for the 30th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Do you know if that’s correct?

I haven’t heard of anyone else, but whatever of that, I did it for two reasons, to defend the Pope’s teaching, but also to draw attention to the decline, in fact, perhaps the collapse of family life in our society. I was attacked, strangely enough, by Anglican spokespeople who said it was against ecumenism, and Muriel Porter, an Anglican lady writer, who said that it was very old fashioned, and that single people had a right to sex. So, in the light of that controversy, I was able to get a piece into the Melbourne Age, which is the quality paper there, finalizing or responding to the objections. That was well received, but in the popular daily, they actually received an editorial in support of our position and saying just what difficulty the family is in. So it was a useful teaching opportunity, both on Natural Family Planning and on marriage and the family. 

But you did get some flak?

Oh yes, there was a lot of hostile comment. There was a Catholic writer who wrote a very aggrieved article in The Melbourne Age, lamenting the reemergence of this doctrine which he believed had been decently buried, and in one of the points I made in response, I trotted out all the promises which I remembered as a student that were made when Paul VI was considering the issue, namely, that every child would be wanted, there’d be less pressures in marriage, there’d be fewer abortions — of course, as we know, none of those things have happened. So it was really sad to see people trotting these things out and really refusing to address the situation as it is. Because the family is in trouble. Now, the secular writers picked that up, and said the archbishop might be wrong on Natural Family Planning, but he’s absolutely right on what is happening to the family, and we need to look at it and we need to work out how, in some way, we can strengthen the family.




The Interviews