Cardinal Pell on How the Church Is Faring in Australia

Reasons for Cautious Optimism

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ROME, MARCH 31, 2004 ( The leadership of the Pope and the bishops is generally accepted in Australia, says Cardinal George Pell in a wide-ranging interview.

Cardinal Pell spoke with ZENIT during the Australian bishops’ recent five-yearly visit to Rome.

Q: After the last visit by the Australian bishops to Rome, in 1998, a document was published outlining the main points raised in the meeting with officials from a number of the congregations in the Curia. It noted a series of challenges, such as a lack of faith, erroneous ideas in Christology and ecclesiology, difficulties facing bishops and priests, etc. What progress has there been in addressing these issues?

Cardinal Pell: I think there has been some progress, though it is a little bit uneven across Australia.

But as you know there was quite some popular reaction in the press against the «Statement of Conclusions.» There were one or two protest meetings; they were attended primarily by people over 50 years of age. But many of the bishops, all of the bishops, listened very attentively to what was said and many of the bishops had been working consistently to stabilize the situation.

We do not have spectacular progress to report, but in quite a number of cities, we know have a number of vocations to the priesthood, a significant number of seminarians. We have some very good young people who are exercising leadership and there is a general awareness of the challenges that we face.

In the last five years I’m not aware of any explicitly erroneous teaching on Christology. There might be around Australia one or two centers which are really centers for paganism and for other religions, pantheism and things like that. But I don’t think we have trouble on the level of Christology.

On the level of ecclesiology there remains a significant group that believes that woman should be ordained. But there is little public agitation; the leadership of the Pope and the bishops is generally accepted, so things are really quite well, ecclesiologically.

Q: The recently published census, National Church Life Survey, showed weekly church attendance by Catholics is continuing to decline. How can this trend be reversed?

Cardinal Pell: I think the national average of weekly worship is something like 16% to 18%. At Christmas and Easter it would be more than twice that generally, so there would be 40% in many places.

Unfortunately, quite a number of people do not go every Sunday, but might worship once or twice a month. And that would bring the number up significantly about 18%.

The numbers are dropping because the old churchgoers are dying and not being replaced by significant numbers of young people. Of course, 18% is a national average, in some parts of Australia the percentage should be much lower than that; in some country dioceses the percentage would be much higher.

In Sydney, there is about the national average, and one reason for that is because many of our migrant groups remain very strong Catholics. The groups such as the Vietnamese, the Koreans, Croatians and other groups too have strong local traditions like the Italians, and we are getting a very significant number of Chinese-Australian converts.

Q: How do you interpret these other figures — the numbers of Baptists rising 8% and Churches of Christ 7%? Is there a particular reason behind these numbers?

Cardinal Pell: The percentage of Catholics dropped slightly, but between 1996 and 2001 the number of Catholics in Australia increased by over 200,000 because the population generally is increasing.

What is not realized is that those Christian religions have a clear biblical message. They have strong communities that make demands on their people; they are the groups that are growing. The groups that you mentioned come from a very, very small base, which is easier to grow.

But regarding the view held by some very liberal Catholics — that the way forward is to lessen the demands of the Gospel, to go quiet on the Commandments and the importance of prayer — their suggestion that Christianity will flourish by adapting to the age, I think the statistics show that that is completely false.

Almost everywhere in the English-speaking world, where there is growth there is an explicit call to conversion and [there is] generally good community and a call for a personal sacrifice.

Q: As in other countries the Church in Australia has been affected by the problem of sexual abuses by some priests. Do you think the worst of this is over now? And what steps have been taken to avoid future abuses?

Cardinal Pell: I hope and pray that the worst of the crises is over. I think that is the situation.

Certainly now, we have generally adequate processes in place across the nation. There are two general processes: one in Melbourne, and another, a universal-process procedure.

So victims can either go straight to the police, and if they go straight to the police, the Church does not interfere. If they come to the Church, the procedure varies slightly from state to state.

The Church can deal with those procedures, can deal with those allegations, if people refuse to go to the police. The people have to sign a form, to say they want the Church to deal with it and not the police.

In our state, in New South Wales, if the allegations touch on anything to do with schools, they have to be reported to a government official called the ombudsman.

Also, it has been recommended that each diocese or religious order should set up a panel of advisers, not to participate in the process, but to review with the bishop what has been done to see that it is satisfactory.

I have such a committee; it is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, and it includes a man who had been Crown Prosecutor, a professor of psychiatry, a priest, a Catholic mother and a businesswoman who just reviews what we do, what we are proposing to do, what we have done, and who can advise the bishop that he is proceeding in the right way.

So I think we have good procedures, and the important thing now is for us to use those procedures when accusations come. And substantially I believe that it has been done.

Q: Have guidelines been frequently published in this regard?

Cardinal Pell: Yes, they have been published for many years and they have been updated once or twice. But the procedures are available to the public and to anyone who is interested in how we are dealing with these things.

Q: When you were archbishop of Melbourne, and now as archbishop of Sydney, you undertook a reform of the diocesan seminary. What fruits have come from this and what prospect do you see in the immediate future for vocations?

Cardinal Pell: I think in Melbourne there have been good fruits, the number of seminarians has increased, that increase continues. These are good-quality seminaries, and we know have a significant number of very fine young priests in Melbourne to join a bigger body of priests there.

I think they are well educated. Most of them have studied at university before they come in. The seminary course now means that they are well schooled in prayer — regular daily prayer for many years — and they also have a variety of pastoral experiences.

And, of course, what is important is that there is a program in the seminary on psychosexual development and on moral theology, so that the whole sexuality-side is clearly understood. Also they are rigorously examined to see that they are suitable to be priests in this day and age.

Q: In many countries the Church has been strengthened in recent years by the flourishing of new movements and lay groups. What has been Australia’s experience in this regard?

Cardinal Pell: I am very sympathetic to these new groups, to the extent that I know them. For example, the Emmanuel Community from France has groups both in Melbourne and Sydn
ey. The Neocatechumenal Way has a seminary in Perth, Western Australia, and I invited them to set up a seminary in Sydney.

Those two groups have made steady progress but not spectacular progress. The Focolarini are also present and the same would be true of them. Communion and Liberation only has a very small group in Sydney so far.

So it is interesting, but the new movements have not «taken off» in Australia. There has not been a dramatic growth so far.

Q: What is their specific contribution to the Church life?

Cardinal Pell: One of the specific contributions they made is to emphasize the important role of lay people, the importance of baptism, and vocation.

I think the sociological pressures on faith are so strong now that we are going to have need of more and more leadership from lay people, not just for internal Church organization, but to take Christianity out into the world — not just to be navel-gazing.

For example, we have a good chaplaincy group in the University of Sydney that is led by lay people: young men and women. In the last two and a half years they have revitalized the Catholic university chaplaincy, and I would like to spread that to other universities in Sydney.

The old institution that helped so much, the family, has always been necessary. But the family has been weakened in Australia. The Catholic schools as religious institutions also have been weakened.

We have a very big system. I have nearly 70,000 students in Catholic schools in my part of Sydney alone, and throughout Australia we have 600,000 people in Catholic schools.

But there are very few members of religious orders teaching in schools now. And our parishes are not strong as they were, because the percentage of worshippers has declined significantly. So we have to look at evangelization — not just maintenance. We have to go out and hand on the faith.

I think there will be a lot of people in Australian society generally who become dissatisfied with the neo-pagan world in which they live. They are looking for peace of heart, they are looking for security. And we offer that to them. Certainly, we have to put more resources, more attention into evangelization.

Q: On a personal note: You are known for your willingness to defend Church teaching. That has also made you a lightning rod for attacks. Do you see this willingness to speak out as an essential part of being a bishop?

Cardinal Pell: Yes, I do. One of the important tasks the Second Vatican Council recommended was to dialogue with the world around us. Certainly Pope Paul VI was a good example of that, and the present Holy Father is a spectacular example of this dialogue within the world.

That does not mean we always have to agree with everything that goes on in society, but rather we must engage that society.

In Sydney I have a small weekly column in the Sunday newspaper, which has the widest distribution of any newspaper in Australia.

One of my auxiliary bishops has a monthly column in the competing paper. This is an example of our attempts to take the Christian message out into the general society.

And recently on Ash Wednesday we had a premiere of Mel Gibson’s film «The Passion.» I wrote a review of that film. It was widely discussed, criticized, praised, wondered about in the secular press. I appeared on television with the Jewish rabbi from Sydney. We differed about it, but it was an amicable discussion.

So we definitely should try to take the message of Christ out into the marketplace.

Q: How is the relationship between media of communications and the Catholic Church? Has there ever been any misinterpretation of your teachings or of the Holy Father’s teachings?

Cardinal Pell: Oh, sometimes it happened. But generally I am accurately reported. And sometimes of course the press does not mis-report, but just ignores some of the important things that we would like to say.

The orientation of the press toward religion varies. Some papers have a more explicitly secular liberal and somewhat anti-religious tradition, other papers are less antagonistic. All of them are tempted to sensationalism, all of them like a public quarrel. All of them like something that is newsworthy.

But there is no point in complaining. I think we have got a better run in Australia then religion does in some European countries. I do not think we have the antagonism of the BBC to the Catholic Church in any of the organs in Australia.

Regarding the Holy Father’s teachings: He receives a lot of publicity and coverage in Australia and his teachings are also given an extensive publicity. It is not infrequently that they are criticized.

There is no doubt that the Holy Father has been the most spectacularly successful spokesman for Catholicism and indeed Christianity in the 20th century. That would be true in Australia and I think everybody in Australia would know who the Pope is.

That is not a bad achievement for a country on the other side of the world … you know, from Rome.

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