The Church's Helmsman Down Under

Interview with Biographer of Australian Archbishop Pell

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SYDNEY, Australia, DEC. 11, 2002 ( As her biography of Archbishop George Pell of Sydney recently rolled off the presses, author Tess Livingstone shared her insights into the prelate with ZENIT.

ZENIT: What moved you to write a book on Archbishop Pell?

Livingstone: I have been a working journalist for 20 years and I knew that Archbishop Pell’s life is a vast and interesting story that many people — Catholics and non-Catholics — would find fascinating.

It is a life with many twists and turns. For example, he grew up in his parents’ country hotel in Ballarat, Victoria; was quite ill as a small child, then made a strong recovery to be a star footballer and sportsman at St. Patrick’s Christian Brothers College in Ballarat, as well as excelling academically and at debating.

Interestingly, he was, at least initially, a reluctant starter for the priesthood although he developed a very clear sense that God was calling him.

As a priest he did a variety of jobs — country curate, head of a Catholic teachers college, seminary rector. Then as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne from 1987 to 1996 he ran Caritas Australia, and traveled and worked extensively in some of the poorest parts of the world, especially Asia.

He is also the first Australian to be archbishop of Melbourne and archbishop of Sydney, Australia’s largest and most important cities. He also served as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a decade. So clearly there was never going to be any shortage of material for this book.

Q: What struck you the most about him as you were researching the book?

Livingstone: I was struck by his obvious leadership qualities, the breadth and depth of his knowledge — not just of Church matters but of literature, languages, history, politics and the world in general.

He is a prolific reader and has an extraordinary capacity for study and work. His loyalty to Christ and His Church is absolute, as is his loyalty to the Holy Father, his brother bishops and priests.

In interviews and conversation His Grace is thoughtful, thinks before he speaks, and tends to see the best and believe the best about most people, including many of his opponents, even if they don’t always return the favor.

I was also struck by his capacity to make a contribution to the wider Australian society. While Australia generally is a prosperous, happy country, we do have a share of serious social problems in areas where the Church should make its voice heard.

For example, there are 100,000 abortions a year — an extraordinary high rate for a country of 20 million people. Like many other Western countries, we are not having enough children to maintain our population in the future, even at current levels, without migration.

Divorce and family instability are also major problems, and their effect on children is becoming all too apparent. Dr. Pell has made some major speeches on these subjects in the past few years which have received widespread media coverage. Few other Australian bishops, if any, make such an impact on subjects where the Church needs to be at the forefront of public debate. In this, Dr Pell very much follows in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who is one of his great heroes.

He is also a man of the future, with education of the young as one of his main priorities. Generally speaking, catechetical education for Catholic children has been a mess in Australia for decades.

In Melbourne, Dr. Pell oversaw the production of the «To Know, l Worship and Love» series of textbooks that are comprehensive, orthodox, interesting and so well presented that children love using them. This is a significant contribution to the Church.

Seminary education is also one of his key priorities and he has improved both the number of recruits and the quality of their training both in Sydney and Melbourne.

Q: How would you describe His Grace in a thumbnail sketch?

Livingstone: Sometimes enigmatic — he keeps a lot of his feelings and thoughts to himself, I think. He is a man of great faith, and prayer, and I think he has become more prayerful in the face of the trials and tribulations of recent years.

He is not in the least interested in money, although he is someone who gets the most out of life — he loves traveling, visiting new places, surfing, catching up with friends and appreciates fine art and music.

He’s very loyal to his friends and keeps them for decades — he is 61 years old and I interviewed several close friends he has known for more than 40 years, and one he has known since they were both 10. He is obviously close to his sister — a brilliant violinist — and his brother — an accountant, his brother’s children and his cousins. Interviewing them for the book, I found all of them down to earth and easy to talk to. Like His Grace, they have a good, dry sense of humor.

George Pell is an ecumenist in the best sense — he mixes freely and well with members of the other Christian denominations and indeed with members of the other faiths, for example, Islam and Judaism. However, he does not indulge in the kind of false ecumenism that pretends that the very real differences between the Churches do not exist, that Catholicism is just a branch of some wider Christian church.

Q: What kind of impact could he have on the Catholic Church in Australia at this moment of history?

Livingstone: A vast impact, through education, seminary training and giving a sense of purpose and direction.

If George Pell had not been a priest he probably would have been a barrister or a doctor, but I could have imagined him becoming an important political leader. He would have made a good Prime Minister — the right combination of hard-headedness and big-heartedness — plus the intellect, presence and the oratory skills the job requires.

Few Christian leaders in Australia today are of this caliber, which is a shame. But some of the younger priests I met, in Melbourne especially, while preparing this book, struck me as leaders of the future for the Church and society at large — articulate, intelligent men with deep faith.

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The biography, «George Pell,» by Tess Livingstone is available to readers in North America for $15. Send credit card details to

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