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Remembering Cardinal Pell

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His sudden death and final writings have put Australian Cardinal George Pell into the headlines around the world. Given his importance, we went down under to get insights into his view of the Catholic role in today’s world. Our guest, Monica Doumit, is the Director of Public Affairs and Engagement for the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia.


Cy Kellett:

Hello, and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. One of the great defenders of the Catholic faith in recent decades has been Australian Cardinal George Pell, who died quite unexpectedly earlier this month. You’re likely familiar with Cardinal Pell as the sharp-tongued warrior for cultural and religious sanity who was called to Rome to reform the mess of church finances. But if you’re not familiar with that part of his story, you probably almost certainly are familiar with him as the Australian Cardinal accused of sexual abuse, who served more than a year in solitary confinement, before being acquitted by Australia’s highest court. He fought and he suffered for his faith. It seemed to almost every neutral observer that his trials and imprisonment were tremendous miscarriages of justice, but he never wavered. That’s what we wanted to dedicate this episode to: his unwavering spirit and, really, his strength of spirit in being a great defender of the faith.

It’s an apologetics podcast. But he was one of the great apologists of his times, and it just seemed to us that other defenders of the faith can learn a great deal from imitating him. To help us remember the man, we called upon one of his many Australian proteges, our friend Monica Doumit, the Director of Public Affairs and Engagement for the Archdiocese of Sydney in Australia. Unfortunately, our cross-Pacific connection was a bit rough for the first few minutes of this interview, but you’ll notice it clears up at about three minutes in. So, thanks for your patience with that glitch. And here’s our interview with Monica Doumit.

Monica, thanks for being here with us.

Monica Doumit:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor to be here and to talk about the Cardinal.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it, but it must be a… We were shocked. Everybody was shocked. This is not like Benedict’s death; this is nothing that we were expecting. But for you there in Australia, the shock must be quite acute.

Monica Doumit:

Absolutely. I think we’re all still a little bit stunned as we go through the process of dealing with media and planning the funeral. I don’t think even yet there’s been time for it to sink in, and I can’t really believe that he’s gone.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. That’s the thing. It’s got to sink in. And you knew him how? Tell us a little bit about your relationship with Cardinal Pell.

Monica Doumit:

Sure. Well, I was a young person growing up in Sydney while he was the Archbishop. He brought more youth there to Sydney, and so there were plenty of opportunities to hear him and to see him in that capacity, just as one of the young people.

I remember in particular at Theology on Tap, maybe 2006, 2007, where he got up to speak, and I don’t really recall what the topic was, but I remember him saying that it was young people who needed to be the voice of the Church in today’s increasingly secular society. And he said, “I’m talking to all of you, but I’m particularly speaking with you young women. If you know your faith and if you know what you’re on about, then you need to get out there and be a voice for the Church, but you need to know what you’re speaking about. So, if you’ve got your first and second university degree, I want you to go back and keep studying and make sure you go back and learn something about economics because us Catholics always get criticized if we don’t know anything about finances. I think that’s a part that’s overplayed, but you learn economics as well.”

So here I was, a 20-something, and sitting in the audience. Had two university degrees already, and I think maybe a week or two later went and enrolled in a diploma of financial services and got myself filled up on the finance and then ended up enrolling in a master’s [inaudible 00:03:59]. So really, just that one encounter changed, at least, my course of study.

I was practicing as a lawyer at the time, and then many years later left that to come and work for the archdiocese under Cardinal Pell, but he was there only a matter of weeks before he left to be prefect for the secretary of the economy. So, I have never actually met him.

But then as time went on, the allegations against him started coming out. The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse was happening in Australia. I just started writing what I could see from a legal perspective, from a Church perspective, not aware that His Eminence had been reading my writings over in Rome. I went over to Rome in 2016 to make the pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy and encountered a priest friend there who said, “Oh, the Cardinal had been speaking about you.” I said, “What? The Cardinal doesn’t know who I am.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, no. He’s been reading your material and he shows it to all of us.” So, arranged for a meeting between the two of us. It wasn’t until 2016…

Cy Kellett:

Wow.

Monica Doumit:

… that I encountered… He took me into his office inside the Vatican and it was the most surreal experience, being driven past Swiss guards saluting you as you went up to meet with the Cardinal. He was so gracious. We sat for more than an hour and just spoke on a whole range of topics. And then every time he was back in Sydney, he would give me a call; we’d catch up. He was very, very encouraging of me personally, of me using whatever platform I could to be a voice for the Church. Yeah. Just incredibly gracious.

Cy Kellett:

Monica, one of the reasons I really wanted to talk with you about the Cardinal was I read your extraordinary piece. You write in the Catholic Weekly. Of course, you’re a columnist there. But you wrote a piece called An Ever Pastoral Shepherd, and it was very interesting to me, about you were in a certain sense with the Cardinal when the allegations came out. You want to tell us a little bit about that experience?

Monica Doumit:

Sure. It was 2016. It was in the middle of World Youth Day, Cardinal Pell was overseas in Rome. But all of the communication staff was over at World Youth Day. I was a relatively junior member of the communication staff, but the only one in the Sydney office. When we found out the allegations would be aired, all of a sudden I became in charge of the communications on the Sydney side. They were being aired live on a television program at 7:30 PM in the evening. The only way the Cardinal was going to be able to hear the allegations firsthand, he didn’t know what they were yet, was to have a phone sitting under the television.

So, just before the program started, his secretary called my phone and I put it on speaker and put it under the television and listened live along with the Cardinal to the allegations. Then the program finished, and I was looking at my phone just thinking, “I don’t want to pick it up. I know he’s going to be on the other end.” So, I put the phone up to my ear and said, “Look, Your Eminence, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.” In his very practical self, he just said, “Oh, I could only hear bits of it.” Said, “Okay, well we’ve recorded it. I’ll get a transcript to you right now.” And he said, “Aw, look. I’m really sorry. I know it’s already late over there. I know it’s been a long day and you have hours of work ahead of you.” “Your Eminence, I don’t know what else to do except to work in this moment. That’s the only way I can show you my support. So, let me get to work and we’ll get this done as soon as possible.”

I’ve been on the phone back and forth to the communications director all night, and it was probably about two o’clock in the morning. I was on my way home. The statements had all gone out; everything had happened. And she called me and said, “Are you okay?” I said, “I’m fine. Everything’s gone out. I’m just in a cab on the way home.” And she said, “Yeah. But you, personally, are you okay?” I said, “I’m fine. We’ve spoken half a dozen times this evening.” And she said, “I know, but the Cardinal called me. He’s very worried about you. He wanted me to check in to make sure that you were okay. He knew you were alone in the office and said that you sounded terribly upset on the phone.” I’d only met the Cardinal that one time, and this was probably the worst day of his life or up there, at least, and here he was inquiring about my welfare and making sure that I was okay. That was what he was like through all of this.

I remember speaking to him after his conviction, and again, his concern was about other people. I was on a call when he was in prison one time, and he ran through a list of people about whom he was asking their welfare. It didn’t matter what he was going through, his heart was always with and for other people. It was just a side to him that the public rarely saw, that the media never reported. But he was such a good and kind man.

Cy Kellett:

When you say that the media never reported, I think even if these accusations had never happened and this kind of, really, a miscarriage of justice had never happened to him, he still would’ve had a negative reputation among many Australians and certainly among the media types in Australia. Why was that? Why is he a figure that drew that kind of negativity?

Monica Doumit:

He was a staunch defender of the truth, and held and prized that above pretty much everything. There’s a great story about when he got appointed as the rector of the seminary in Melbourne while he was still a priest, and came in and it was the seminaries coming out of the ’70s and ’80s and all of that period. He insisted on daily Mass and holy hour for the seminarians, and the staff protested and said that if he insisted on daily Mass and holy hour, then they would resign. So, he promptly accepted their resignations and then began the reform of the seminary that he wanted to do with a good headstart. He was like that. There was no backing down from the truth or from what was right.

Through all of those years, he defended marriage and sexual morality through the influx of things like IVF and embryonic stem cell research and everything like that. He was always out in front, speaking the truth, really without compromise. That made him disliked not only in, I guess, secular Australia, but also oftentimes within the church. When he came to Sydney as Archbishop in 2003, in came the protestors to the Masses wearing their rainbow sashes up to receive holy communion just so that he would have to deny them. Protests always followed His Eminence in that way, but only because he was a speaker of the truth and a great defender of faith.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I completely accept your word on that, Monica, but there are people who speak the truth, and then there are people who kind of… I mean, what you’re describing, I suppose, is a man who by all appearances from those who knew him personally, like yourself, is actually quite a loving, affectionate, kind, considerate person. The caricature is exactly the opposite of that. It seems there’s a kind of personal animus towards him that won’t even allow the basic decency of saying, “Ah, well, he’s a good guy, but I disagree with him.”

Monica Doumit:

Yeah, absolutely. Look, he had a personal style, particularly when speaking with the media and speaking with the public, that was very, I guess, Aussie blunt. At times, there were no airs and graces. He would tell you what he thought, and so often quite bluntly. I can say I’ve been on the receiving end of that as well. If that’s all you saw of him then, there was that impression.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, okay.

Monica Doumit:

A colleague of mine would say, every time I heard someone criticize the Cardinal, my first question would be, “Have you ever met him?” So, he did have quite rough edges, I guess, when presenting to the media, but it was just his no-nonsense, straight down the line attitude, I think, that gave him that persona. But certainly, those who got to spend any time at all with him would say quite the opposite. It was quite confusing.

But also, people can be irrational over things like this, and it wouldn’t matter what he did. I’ve seen people come in the media in recent days and retell stories, like, “He wouldn’t look me in the eye when X or Y occurred,” and I thought, “I was there at the time, and I saw how tender he was to you in that moment.” So, sometimes you just get irrationality from people who, quite rightly, have been harmed by the Church and are looking for someone to blame. When things go wrong in corporations, in banks and other things like that, the CEO always resigns or steps down or something like that. There’s always a head that goes when there’s crisis or criminal behavior in other organizations.

With the abuse crisis, at least in Australia, that didn’t happen because by the time the big public reckoning happened, those most responsible had either retired or passed on. But I think the public was looking for a head, someone who would accept responsibility and say, “Okay, that’s on me. I’m going.” And the Catholic Church in Australia didn’t have that symbolic resignation. So part of it, I think, part of the anger and the animus towards the cardinal was that he was seen as the head of the Church and upon him all of that fell.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. I remember when we were in Australia and we had the great pleasure of meeting you there, and I was asking a priest about it there, who I wouldn’t bother to name; this was a private conversation. But I just said, “Why do people believe that the Cardinal is guilty of these things? It just doesn’t seem plausible.” He said, “Even if they don’t believe it, they believe as the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, he’s guilty of a lot of other things.” So there’s a kind of attitude of, “Well, yeah, maybe this isn’t it, but he should be in jail because whosever the head of these Catholics in Australia should be in jail.”

Monica Doumit:

That’s exactly right. I think there was also, unjustly to victims as well, there was this idea of if Cardinal Pell goes to prison or if he’s punished in some other way, then that will contribute to your healing. There was this idea of, for the sake of victims, someone must be punished. And so, I think there was a real desire to see that happen. I mean, even now we had the premier of Victoria in speaking about the funeral completely say, “No, there would be no state funeral, no public memorial for the Cardinal because that would be insensitive to victims,” even in death, even after being unanimously acquitted by the highest court in the country, still there’s this idea of, if any honor is bestowed upon the Cardinal, then victims would somehow suffer. I think that’s not only unjust to the Cardinal, but ultimately unjust to victims because I don’t think punishing the Cardinal would contribute at all to their healing.

Cy Kellett:

No. It’s one kind of illusions that is always out there in front of us, but that it never pays off in the way that we hope or wish that it would pay off. Vengeance just doesn’t do what it claims it’s going to do, as with many temptations or all the temptations.

But Monica, I want to ask you about him as a defender of the faith because you’ve used that term a great deal. This is one of the things that, as you know, we try to do here at Catholic Answers, is explain and defend the faith. So if you said to people like us or people around the world who admired Cardinal Pell or who just want to be good defenders of the faith, what are the lessons we can take away from him about how you engage with the world; he never backed down; he was always there, but do so in a way that actually defends the Catholic faith?

Monica Doumit:

Absolutely. Well, I think the first thing is that he was always an advocate for the voice of the Church in the public square. I remember him being challenged at a university about why he should have a say. He quite blisteringly said, “Well, I’m a citizen just like you are, and my voice just counts just as much as yours does. So, you can’t tell me I can’t have a voice in this.” So, insistent that the Church should always have a voice in public and that we shouldn’t be ashamed or apologetic for that. That’s the first thing.

The second thing, I think, is there wasn’t a topic, really, that he wouldn’t touch, whether it was everything from climate change was one of his favorites, to bioethical issues, to what was happening in the Church. I mean, we’ve seen in recent days some of the commentary that he wrote on the synod on synodality, this idea that you can have a voice on every topic and not be pigeonholed into a certain space.

I think the other lesson, and one that I’ll hold particularly dear, is he would always say that to fight and lose is one thing, but to never put up a fight is a disgrace. So, even if the culture is against you, the laws are against you, that’s no excuse not to fight. You keep standing up; you keep proclaiming the truth in and out of season, and if they knock you down, you get back up again and keep fighting. He’d use a lot of boxing metaphors to drive home his point, but that was him. Just insist on your space. It doesn’t matter if you lose just as long as you fight, and you can talk about whatever you want to because there’s no area of life where the Church and the voice of faith can’t input.

Cy Kellett:

Well, certainly, he had every reason to believe that he had many years still ahead of him. He was having his hip replaced, which was the event that led to his passing, at least apparently. So, it does seem like that fighting spirit… In the last two things that he published, both of which I read, one of which was it published somewhat anonymously and also seems to have maybe included the thoughts of some other cardinals. He spoke for a group, maybe, publishing under the name Demos, and then something that just got published, I think maybe the day after he died, which was he was preparing for. These things were quite bracing, shall I say. Have you read them? And what do you make of his kind of final… He was getting ready to fight again.

Monica Doumit:

Absolutely. Look, I’m not sure what to make of the Demos article, and certainly those of us who discuss it say, “I’ve never known the Cardinal to write anything under a pseudonym.” So, I’d be keen to explore a little bit more about whether or not he had a hand in that and how much. But certainly, the article criticizing the synod on synodality and the process around that.

He was 81, out of voting range for the College of Cardinals, didn’t get a spot at Australia’s plenary council, nor would he have been involved directly in the synod on synodality on ality, but he still wanted to influence in any way that he could, I guess. Reading it, it was just him, this idea of this is madness, some of what is going on is absolute madness, and I’m going to call it out. I think at his age, he probably thought, “I have nothing to lose.” But at the same time, I think even if this was 20 years ago, he would’ve done the same thing. I think that was his style, that you speak the truth into madness, into chaos, even if you get punished for it.

His episcopal motto was be not afraid. I can see that in so many aspects of his life, but particularly in the way that he spoke the truth in certain circumstances. I have to say, this was born out of such a deep love for the Church and for what the Church can be and what it can contribute to the world and to society and everything like that. I think that despite sort of the quiet, brusque nature of that piece, I think it really did come from a heart that just was sad at seeing some of this happen and wanting the Church to be better. I wouldn’t put him at all in an anti-Church or an anti-pope camp or anything like that. I think that this was just coming out of sort of a heart that just wanted better for the Church.

Cy Kellett:

Right. I didn’t read it as anti-Pope Francis, but I read it as very critical of Pope Francis and of those who are administering the Church in… I don’t know if you call it an administration of a pope or whatever it is, but it was very critical. But there’s nothing wrong with being critical. I mean, we’re allowed to be critical. He actually served Pope Francis, by all appearances, quite ably, and was willing to serve and be helpful. But to me, it came across as, “Yep, okay. But we’ve reached a line here where this is kind of spinning out of control and somebody needs to say, ‘Reign it back in.'”

Monica Doumit:

Absolutely. That idea of, well, if no one else is going to say it, I’m going to put my voice in there and I’ll say it, and I’ll take the criticism or whatever comes with that… He didn’t know that he was going to pass when he penned that article, and so was obviously willing to take on whatever the outcomes were of that.

You said that he served Pope Francis, and I think all of the work he does, he did in the Vatican financials and clearing a lot of that mess up, it was that same brash, no-nonsense attitude that assisted the Church, the Holy Father, but the Church more broadly in clearing up some of that. So, he didn’t have different attitude for finances that he did for faith, that he did for public morals or anything like that. It was just the one big baseball bat that he took, or a cricket bat, dare I say, to everything that he got his teeth into.

Cy Kellett:

Well, but what’s notable, too, is that he didn’t at any point fall into the nuttiness of some of the anti-Francis stuff, of maybe trying to prove that Francis is not really the pope or all the various things that actually it’s much bolder in a certain sense to just say, “This pope is a terrible pope,” if that’s what you believe, rather than trying to find all these ways out of the problem of a pope that you disagree with. He didn’t do the nutty thing. He didn’t go over that far.

Monica Doumit:

No, of course. Because I think part of the, if you want to call it the nutty thing, is trying to find a reason where you can justify for yourself a lack of fidelity to the Holy Father. If you can prove that he wasn’t really the pope or something, it was some conspiracy or something like that, but that wasn’t Cardinal. “No, we’re a family. I believe that you’re the Holy Father, but let’s have an argument like a family does without actually trying to then find a reason of like, okay, no, this is why I don’t have to listen, why I can just discount your voice.” But that was the Cardinal, right? He wasn’t the type of person that would cancel somebody’s voice. He wanted to debate. I think the whole idea of cancel culture and silencing opposition made him very sad. So the idea of, “No, if there’s something worthy of debate and discussion, then let’s do it openly,” I think that was his style.

Cy Kellett:

I’m struck, as you say that, by what you said earlier about the two kind of points you said to take from him as an example of apologetics. Just feeling like you… I don’t know if feeling so much, but just boldly acting on the idea that my voice is as important as anybody else’s, and if my voice happens to be a Catholic voice, that doesn’t mean it gets to be silenced by somebody else. Again, that boldness to me just seems so much more of a depth and courage than just the angry reaction, the sullen reaction. It’s not sullen at all. It almost has a kind of battle joy about it.

Monica Doumit:

Yes. Yeah. Oh, he was a joyful fighter, I would think. Always with a joke or a smirk or something like that, I think. You have to enjoy the battle, right? I mean, we’re in the middle of, I don’t know, a decades-long culture war. And so, if you don’t find joy and peace in it, then it’s going to be a remarkably horrible life. I think, yeah, definitely there was some joy in the battle that I saw in him and that he passed onto a generation of clergy and religious and lay faithful after him. I always say there’s a generation George now coming through of all of us, hopefully sort of warriors in his image, in one sense.

Cy Kellett:

Isn’t that extraordinary? Because you started off with that, your kind of reflection on your first meeting with him where he called on young women to be defenders of the Church, and then people like him, you think of the Pope John Paul generation of priests, and you think of all the people, lay and clerical, who kind of got their intellectual chops from Pope Benedict. Cardinal Pell is, even far beyond Australia, has had that effect on people.

But when I think about him speaking to you and saying, “We need you young women to get in the fight,” again, it seems to speak against the stereotype of the old, stodgy Catholic traditionalist who’s afraid of change. There’s no fear in that. It doesn’t seem to have any fear of change. Change is fine. The Church bringing up lay voices and the voices of both men and women, he seemed very comfortable with that,

Monica Doumit:

Of course, and encouraged it. He put a campus of the University of Notre Dame in Sydney so that theological training would be accessible to a wider range of laity. He had absolutely no fear of educated lay voices. Actually, that was a great delight for him, the encouragement of education. So, not only do you raise your voice in public, but make sure you have a good education behind you when you are doing that, so that when you are speaking, you know what you’re talking about. So he was all for the lay faithful being educated in theology and whatever their professional fields were, and being given the platform to speak. Look, I’m certainly a product of that. I wouldn’t be here today. I definitely wouldn’t be speaking on Catholic Answers if not for him encouraging and advancing me at every point that he could.

Cy Kellett:

It’s magnificent to think about, Monica, because you won’t say it, but we say it all the time: You’re one of the great voices defending the Church. We love every time we get to turn to you and get your take because it’s always such an interesting, honest, but also deeply Catholic take.

You think now about when I overhear in the United States, think about you and Cardinal Pell, I think, well, a man like him who’s always interesting and always honest, but always deeply Catholic, the fruits of his life as a priest, as a teacher, as an encourager of others, goes on and on.

We’ve kept you longer than I said I would keep you. I’m very, very grateful because you really are. I mean, you’re just one of our favorite people, Monica. I know this is a difficult time for those of you who knew him personally and for the Church in Australia. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with about Cardinal Pell before you go? Or have you had enough of us?

Monica Doumit:

I’ll just repeat something that Archbishop Fisher said the day that the Cardinal passed. He said the Cardinal was against eulogies, didn’t want them, didn’t want to be canonized at his funeral, and just would always say, “Make sure you ask people to pray for me.” So in that spirit, I know that probably this conversation, I think I’ve canonized the man, but finish off, I would, on his behalf, ask for everyone’s prayer for his repose.

Cy Kellett:

Praise God. And we will pray for that. And sure, maybe you canonized a little bit, but you also used the term rough edges a couple times, so you balanced it out, Monica.

Monica Doumit’s from Sydney, Australia. I think you’re going to come here to the United States at some point. I’ll tell anybody, if you want just a great Catholic speaker and just to meet a wonderful Catholic person, see if you can get Monica to come by wherever your Catholic group is. Monica, thank you so much for taking the time with us.

Monica Doumit:

Thank you so much. Such a joy to talk.

Cy Kellett:

Thanks to everybody who joins us here on Catholic Answers Focus. I know it’s a little bit different to take the time, but Cardinal Pell is such a special person. We just thought it was really appropriate to do, and also we’ll take any excuse to talk to Monica Doumit. So, I just want to say thanks for listening. If you want to send us an email, you can always reach us. [email protected] is our email address. [email protected] Maybe you got an idea for a future episode. If so, let us know about it. Some of our best episodes have come from that.

Also, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, if you’d give us a nice review, maybe you hit that five-star button or however many stars they got wherever you are, that helps to grow the podcast. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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