The passing of George Pell leaves a large, eclectic and global circle of friends and admirers bereft of a mentor. The Church has lost a servant and a teacher who came much closer than most to the imitation of Christ. And Australia has lost its greatest religious leader, at least since the redoubtable Archbishop Danny Mannix.

When George Pell was called to Rome to head the Secretariat for the Economy, managing the business side of the Vatican, it must have seemed the culmination of a glittering career as a prince of the Church. Little could he have known of the tribulations ahead: grilled by police about old and improbable allegations, eventually dragged back to Melbourne to face two trials, imprisonment, and a failed appeal, before an eleventh hour vindication by the High Court – but even that was not enough to stem the torrent of abuse from those who regarded Catholicism as a curse and him as its embodiment.

While dismayed by the media hounding and shocked by the police vendetta, and naturally stressed by the ordeal, I suspect there was a part of him that quietly revelled in following in the footsteps of Christ his lord, not to glory but to a kind of crucifixion. As anyone who has read his prison diaries would know, with St Paul, he came to realise that “my power is made perfect in weakness”. This was his triumph. Not that he was successively archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney and, effectively, the third ranked Church hierarch; but that he faced a kind of living death, stripped of honour and almost universally scorned, with his innate decency entirely intact. Perhaps this sacrifice of his might one day be seen as helping to atone for all the sins of the contemporary Church.

As a witness to faith, there could hardly be a better exemplar. As I know from numerous conversations with him, he was never bitter, never self-pitying, and never judgmental. At a time when he could well have asked “why hast thou forsaken me?”, as his prison diaries testify, his focus was always the well-being of others (even his fellow inmates), the flourishing of the Church, and the advancement of the causes he believed in. Faith sufficient to move mountains, maybe it wasn’t. But faith enough, eventually, to open a gaol – and faith enough, I suspect, to inspire generations to come; those better able to appreciate him as the great soul he was, now that he’s been removed from the tumult of this world. In keeping both his faith and his cool, in not succumbing to despair, through almost unimaginably desolate circumstances, I think he’s truly a saint for our times.

I first came to know the then assistant bishop of Melbourne in the late 1980s, at a time when I was searching for a strong and self-confident Church leader to sustain my own wavering faith. While some were put off by his occasionally imperious public manner, I always found him thoughtful and sympathetic. The only topic on which I can ever recall disagreement was the question of Australia becoming a republic which I felt might have been a bone that he threw to the zeitgeist.

When I needed advice that was both wise and disinterested during the 2004 election campaign, I visited him in the cathedral presbytery after morning mass. Apparently, I was spied coming out and – typical of the conclusions the media cynically leap to – was subsequently accused of putting-up the Cardinal to his later (eminently justified) criticisms of Mark Latham’s education policy. After the initial shock of this bizarre and quite false allegation, I eventually told my incredulous interrogator that far from engaging in a conservative Catholic conspiracy, I might well have been going to confession. On that occasion, as it happened, I wasn’t. Still, for an entirely orthodox churchman, the Cardinal was a fine pastoral priest who well understood the human stain and was more than capable of empathising with sinners while counselling against sin.

One of my last conversations with the Cardinal was about the nature of the life of the world to come. For something so central to Christian faith, it’s remarkably little discussed. Eventually, we concluded that it’s one of the “assurances of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen”. Now he knows; and I hope one day to be able to share it with him.  

It’s impossible not to feel low and empty when someone close to us has died. Yet breaking through the tears is the joy of having known this remarkable man who did so much good, especially in recalling the Church to its true purpose: to preach the gospel and to encourage all of us to be our best selves. Were he here, he would doubtless whisper with Julian of Norwich that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well”. And so it will be, especially if the world is blessed with more people like George, Cardinal Pell.

Originally published in The Australian