Cardinal Pell on John Paul II

«He’s Moved on a Stage That’s Absolutely Gigantic»

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ROME, APRIL 7, 2005 ( On the eve of John Paul II’s funeral, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, shared with ZENIT his views about the life of the Pope.

Q: What was your first reaction upon hearing the news of Pope John Paul II’s death?

Cardinal Pell: My reactions were mixed. I was with a group of Neocatechumenal leaders, seminary rectors in the Holy Land, at the beautiful Domus Galilee up in the Mountain of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

We were saddened by the loss of this extraordinary leader, [yet] we were relieved that his suffering was over and aware that we were Christian people who believed in life after death. But there was certainly sadness and an awareness of a great loss.

Q: Within Australia — which is «in between the U.S. and Britain» when it comes to religiosity and practice of the faith — what did Pope John Paul II mean for the people of Australia and for Catholics there?

Cardinal Pell: Well, that’s two questions right there: Just as I was driving back to where I am staying in Trastevere, on one of the main roads, there are big posters up with the Pope’s photo of him already at an old age with the simple heading saying, «Un Bravo Uomo» — a great man — and I think for the overwhelming majority of Australians they would have said that — a good man and a great Catholic.

Those that followed current affairs would be aware of his views on many matters and aware of his pivotal role in the overthrow of communism.

Now for the Catholics, regular practicing ones in the mainstream of the Church, I think Peggy Noonan, who writes a column for the Wall Street Journal and was a speechwriter for President Reagan, summed it up very well in an article about two or three years ago when she said that Pope John Paul II made her, and many, many Catholics feel secure that the Church was in good hands — that they were safe. Not from external threat or misadventure or scandals or crises, but as far as the leadership could deal with these things, the Pope had a very safe pair of hands.

This is exactly the way I felt — from the first time I heard him in his inaugural sermon.

Q: Now, turning to the Holy Father’s last moments, you said you felt sad he’d died but relieved his suffering has ended. His last few years and months especially were imbued with suffering. Now, there were a lot of young people keeping vigil in St. Peter’s Square up until and on the night he died, saying that this was the last lesson he was giving to them — how to suffer. What did suffering mean in the thought of Pope John Paul?

Cardinal Pell: Somebody said to me recently that his years of suffering were probably his best sermon. One of the radical differences between Christians and the secular attitude toward suffering is that those without a belief in God tend to flee from suffering and pretend it doesn’t exist.

We as Catholics confront suffering and try to help those suffering, but we also believe that through the suffering and death, primarily of Christ, we were redeemed and saved. In other words, good can come out of suffering.

I think one of the very first encyclicals of the late Holy Father was «Redemptor Hominis,» on the mystery of suffering and the role of Christ as our Redeemer.

All isn’t well in the world. We have to recognize suffering when we have to confront it. And that beautiful teaching of Jesus’ — that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters to help them in their suffering, we do to Christ himself — is spectacular.

Q: You mentioned also Pope John Paul II’s role in the downfall of communism and in many ways, the Berlin Wall fell in the halfway point of his pontificate. What are some of the major issues he was confronting in the second half of his pontificate, which perhaps the press haven’t been paying a lot of attention to?

Cardinal Pell: I think the great moral encyclicals like «The Gospel of Life» and «The Splendor of Truth»‘ … I mean, if he’d written nothing else during his pontificate, he would have been regarded as an extraordinary teacher because he pointed out that not just particular doctrines but the very basis of morality are being challenged in our society.

In a postmodern world the basic claim is that there are no moral bases and the most we might be able to achieve would be a temporary consensus.

Now, the Pope had been a longtime a critic of social injustice, but two other things, especially from a Western point of view that we must realize, is that:

One, I think he was the first Pope to deal adequately with the advantages that capitalism had brought us. Capitalism makes it very difficult for family life, for marriage, but has brought a spread of prosperity and not just in the West but also to many parts of China, for example, which is absolutely unprecedented. And the Pope, in his later encyclicals, recognized this.

Two, [he] explicitly recognized the importance of democracy. He did warn that democratic majorities can be totalitarian if they don’t recognize human rights. But he endorsed democracy as a highly desirable form of government more explicitly than any other Pope in the past. I think he did well to do that.

Q: A final question with regard to Friday’s funeral and the list of dignitaries attending. A lot of these countries do not follow the exact teachings of this Pope; many of them are lacking on things that the Pope taught, i.e., abortion, human rights etc. Why do you think that his funeral is drawing this kind of international response?

Cardinal Pell: For a start, because I think he was one of the most — probably the most extraordinary Pope in Christian history in 2,000 years. Now that’s a large claim and it’s something that I don’t make lightly. Because of the modern means of communication and travel, he’s moved on a stage that’s absolutely gigantic.

We speak of Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century and Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth, but the canvas within which they moved — the Italian peninsula; across the Alps; across to North Africa and Greece to some extent — was a world that was much more confined in comparison to today.

And of course, political leaders, as distinct from a number of secular commentators, realize that his role in the overthrow of communism, bringing freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia, was absolutely pivotal. It was his visit to Poland in 1979 that really awoke the Polish people and when Poland started to move, the whole pack of cards came down.

Some of the communist leadership recognized what was happening, and especially as the trip went on, they tried to stop people attending the Masses.

One English bishop said that he was staying in a hotel in a village about 20 kilometers from Krakow and was woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sounds of tramping. They had stopped the buses miles away and the tens of thousands of Poles were walking through the night.

He [the Pope] told them that they were living a lie. And through a most unusual conjunction of forces, you had a man like Reagan running the States. You had some assistance, too, from Thatcher in the UK.

To have a Pope and an American president prepared to try to knock the communist regime down — and it was tottering — that was fantastically unusual.

Then we had, providentially, a man like Gorbachev who refused to use violence to stay in power.

The disillusion of the Soviet empire without violence was a miracle and I think it was the president of Poland who said just recently, «We wouldn’t be free today without this Pope.»

So, basically, I don’t think it’s surprising that they’re talking about a million and a half Poles coming for the funeral.

It’s for all these sorts of reasons that so many heads of state are coming. It will be one of the most extraordinary funerals in history.

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