VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Australian cardinal who decried the papacy of Pope Francis as a “catastrophe” was given a funeral Saturday and hailed by some fellow churchmen at St. Peter's Basilica, with the pontiff imparting a final blessing for the once high-ranking Vatican prelate.
Cardinal George Pell, 81, died on Jan. 10, shortly after undergoing hip surgery in a Rome hospital. As the Vatican’s finance minister for three years, Pell had been a key player in the early years of Francis’ papacy, whose goals included reforming the Holy See's finances, which had a long history of scandals and poor management.
Pell later returned to his native Australia to be tried on child sex abuse charges over allegations that he molested two choirboys while he was archbishop of Melbourne. He served more than a year in solitary confinement in prison before an earlier court conviction was overturned in 2020.
Pell had steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.
As is customary for funerals of cardinals, a final blessing, delivered in Latin, in the form of a prayer for mercy and eternal rest, was recited by Francis, who, in a wheelchair, passed by Pell's plain wooden coffin.
The funeral Mass itself was celebrated by an Italian cardinal, Giovanni Battista Re, in his role as Dean of the College of Cardinals.
Re praised Pell as a “man of God and man of the Church,'' who was distinguished for ”a deep faith and great solidity of doctrine, which he always defended without wavering and with courage."
"As he noted many times, he was pained by the weakening of faith in the Western world and the moral crisis of the family,'' Re said in his homily.
Re noted how nine days earlier, Pell, “apparently in good health,” had concelebrated, in St. Peter's Square, the funeral Mass for Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who died after nearly a decade in retirement on Dec. 31.
Right after Pell’s death, it was revealed that the Australian churchman had authored the memo that had been circulating for many months in church circles. In the memo, Pell had lamented that the current papacy as a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.”
Separately, the day after Pell died, a conservative magazine published what it said was an article by the cardinal decrying as a “toxic nightmare” Francis' determination to sound out Catholic laity on such issues as church teaching on sexuality and the role of women. Those issues will likely spark sharp debate later this year in a meeting of bishops from around the world summoned by Francis to the Vatican.
The day after Pell died, Francis in a condolence telegram paid tribute to the cardinal, saying that while the prelate led the economy office, “he laid the bases with determination and wisdom” for reforms of the Holy See's finance system, which had been taken to task for years by international financial watchdog bodies.
In the homily, Cardinal Re lamented that Pell's final years had been “marked by an unjust and painful conviction.”
“It was an experience of great suffering sustained with faith in the judgment of God,” Re said.
The cardinal cited the diaries Pell wrote while in prison “with the aim of making known how much faith and prayer help in the difficult moments of life and (how they can) also be a support to who must unjustly suffer.”
Among the concelebrants at the altar on Saturday was another high-profile Vatican prelate who in recent days had blasted Francis’ leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. German Archbishop Georg Gaenswein — like Pell a staunch advocate of the church hierarchy’s more conservative faction and a longtime aide of Pope Benedict XVI — bitterly complained about how he was treated by Francis after Benedict retired in 2013 and Francis was elected as pontiff.
Gaenswein unleashed a torrent of criticism of Francis in interviews hours after Benedict's death in a monastery on the Vatican grounds, where the retired pontiff had lived out his last year and in a book published days later.
Another staunchly conservative German churchman, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, told The Associated Press after attending Pell's funeral that the Australian cardinal left “a great legacy” including on bearing one's suffering.
“Now he is in full redemption” after death, said Mueller, who was dismissed by Francis after a brief term as the Vatican's chief of its doctrinal orthodoxy office.
Luigi Navarra contributed to this report.