Mgr Anthony Figuerido
Last week, I met with Cardinal George Pell in his apartment at the Vatican. We have known each other for many years, most recently in his service at the Holy See as Prefect of the department established by Pope Francis to oversee Vatican finances, the Secretariat for the Economy.
The time that we spent together came to an abrupt halt when the cardinal courageously left Rome and returned to his native Australia to defend himself against allegations of child sex abuse. In December 2018, he was convicted unjustly of historical sexual offences against children with a sentence of six years. For 13 months, until his release on 7th April 2020, this towering Prince of the Church found himself in solitary confinement in a Melbourne prison, convicted of offences that clearly never occurred.
‘Total lockdown’ for the cardinal was every day from 4.30pm in the afternoon to 7.15am in the morning.
Cardinal Pell is a big man, not only in terms of his character, but his size. Yet his prison cell was tiny – just seven or eight metres long and about two metres wide. His bed was like any other prison bed, with a hard underboard, a thin mattress, and two blankets. In the same tiny cell were squashed in a kettle, television, basin and a shower space. One reading lamp was affixed to the wall above his bed and a hospital chair was granted because of the replacement knee surgery he had had in both legs. While the cardinal was never allowed to see the other 11 inmates in his cell block, he heard their shouts, banging fists and feet, and smelt their flooded and excrement-filled cells. On at least one occasion, he was spat upon, threatened and condemned as a ‘black spider’ for being convicted – falsely – as a clergy child sex abuser. On many other occasions, he experienced hate and denouncement. He was exposed to Muslim prayer chants, but was never allowed to offer Mass himself.
In this most unjust of ‘lockdowns’, the proportions of which most of us have never experienced, the cardinal recounts how he never felt abandoned by God, although for most of the time, he did not understand His ways. Clearly, his relationship with the Lord sustained him. He received Holy Communion each week. His daily prayer intentions included his enemies, supporters, fellow prisoners and prison wardens.
On the day of his release, he issued a statement: “I hold no ill will toward my accuser.”
Cardinal Pell follows in the footsteps of another holy archbishop whom I knew at the Vatican, when he was President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: the Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Van Thuan. For 13 years he was jailed by his country’s Communist regime, nine of which he spent in a communist re-education camp in solitary confinement. Every day he would celebrate Mass with three drops of smuggled-in wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand. Like Cardinal Pell, he wrote letters from his prison cell and also came to understand his ‘lockdown’ as a propitious time to reflect on the meaning of life: “My first resolution was to live my present moment and to fill it to the brim with love.”
Time given to reflect on life’s meaning reminds me of a sobering scene in the movie, Ben-Hur, filmed in the Circus Maximus here in Rome. After gloriously defeating his rival in a furious chariot race, the emperor crowns Ben-Hur as the victor. Just minutes later, the stadium becomes eerily quiet. The crowds leave. There is no one left to vanquish. The emptiness of all is deafening. The Catholic priest and author, Gene Hemrick, writes: ‘That scene reflects a humbling fact of life. Once all its rush, cheering, and exaltation is over and nothing remains but silence, what ultimately have we achieved? What are we about in all the advancements we seek? What is the real truth of the matter?’
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis – ‘The Cross is steady while the world spins’.
While their heads were many times undoubtedly spinning, both Cardinal Van Thuan and Cardinal Pell found the truth in the Cross – the consolation that Christ, too, was unjustly accused and condemned, suffered ‘lockdown’ on the Cross and in the tomb, and waited patiently for the Father’s justification.
In our reunion last week, Cardinal Pell looked piercingly at me as he quoted Immanuel Kant more than once: “Have patience awhile; slanders are not long-lived. Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.”
It reminded me of another holy prisoner, Saint Thomas More, who, shortly before his martyrdom, wrote from his prison cell in the Tower of London to his daughter, Margaret, to console her: “Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”
Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal, volume 1 will be available shortly from Ignatius Press. In it he writes seemingly paradoxical words of truth that both console and make me ponder: ‘God is always listening, especially when he is silent. Our sufferings have a purpose.’
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo has served in various capacities at the Vatican and as a Spiritual Director for over 20 years.
Photo: Artefacts collected on the death of Cardinal François-Xavier Van Thuan, who spent 13 years in captivity under Communist-ruled Vietnam, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement.