Looking after Peter’s pennies

Cardinal George Pell tells Greg Daly about the importance of getting liturgy, finances and media narratives right

I’m all in favour of worshipful and beautiful liturgy,” says Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, formerly Archbishop of Sydney and now a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisers.

Visiting Cork for the eighth Fota liturgy conference, the cardinal explains that his involvement in the conference arose through a close friendship with one of the conference organisers and his own role as chairman of Vox Clara, the international committee of bishops that advises the Holy See on translating liturgical texts into English.

“And I think the intellectual quality of the papers that have been produced and published over the years is first rate,” he continues. “I think the wide circulation of these papers recognises this fact, and I think they’re making a good contribution to the dialogue about what we should be doing and where we should be going to consolidate the contribution liturgically of Pope Benedict.”

“I know some of the things I learned at the conferences that I’ve attended here I’ve used very, very widely, and people have been very interested,” he says. “One particular detail I remember is about the baldacchino, the canopy that’s over the four columns in the ancient Roman churches: how that represents the tent, the veil, that’s held over Jewish bridal couples as they’re pronouncing their vows. This baldacchino, as they call it in Italian, recognises and celebrates the fact that Christ is married to the Church. So that’s just one example.”

The conference has also enhanced his understanding, he says, of the various things we do to develop our reverence for the sacred, and the “defences” we use to demonstrate that “the Eucharist is an act of worship, and not just a community celebration”.

“I’m much more sensitive to those, and I often speak about these things, so two swallows don’t make a summer, but that’s a small example of what I’m talking about,” he says.

When asked whether more work needs to be done on explaining the Mass to people, he gestures towards a sign on the sacristy wall opposite him. “Well, by absolute coincidence, if you look over there,” he says, and reads aloud: “‘No doctrine > no vocations > no priests > no Church’.”

“We’ve got to – priests have got to – try to teach what the Mass is about,” he continues. “We celebrate the death of the Lord and his resurrection until he comes again. We believe that through his suffering and death and resurrection he redeemed us. That’s primarily what the Mass is about. We worship the one true God through Jesus Christ his son – it’s not a community get-together. We don’t rely on novelty. We celebrate the fact that what we’re doing has been done for 2,000 years, it was done in the penal times here on the Mass rocks: that’s what we’re about.”


When asked whether he thinks liturgy has been improving in recent years, he says “it depends on what you mean by improving”, before adding: “I think that both Pope John Paul II and especially Benedict made a very significant contribution to our understanding of the liturgy, the importance of worship, and prayer and silence, and Pope Francis has continued that.

“The Holy Father is very respectful of the contribution that Pope Benedict has made on the liturgy, and I’m sure he will work to preserve it. His appointment of Cardinal [Robert] Sarah as Prefect for the Congregation of [Divine] Worship and the [Discipline of the] Sacraments is an example of that.

“If you go to St Peter’s now or go to a World Youth Day – the prayerful silences there now are very, very powerful. That represents, I think, an improvement,” he says.

“Another very significant improvement is the new translations, because they are so rich,” he adds. “The English is a little more difficult, it’s a sacred language – it’s not much different for the congregation, priests have got to take a little bit more care, but every yearly cycle they do it that becomes easier.

“But just thinking of the prayers we’ve had tonight,” he says, referring to Vespers which had just finished at Cork’s Church of Ss Peter and Paul, “well, there’s something to pray about, to meditate, to think about – they’re not ‘do good, avoid evil, we all want to go to Heaven and nobody wants to die’. They’re rich, theologically, and beautiful.”

Citing the old adage that “every translator is a traitor”, he says that while that’s not completely true, some things can be lost in translation and perhaps even more important than beauty is the need for accuracy, especially given decreasing numbers of people who know Latin. “There’s no doubt about it, the starting point for many, many of the Asian and African translations, apart from French-speaking Africa, is English. It may even be the case in Eastern Europe,” he says, making clear how flawed English translations can have repercussions far beyond the English-speaking world.

There has been talk about a new translation of the Breviary, he adds, saying that will prove a long process, but as for the prospects of a new translation of the Mass readings, he says, “about the Lectionary, there’s been a lot of talk, but very little action. I’m not directly involved in that, so we’ll just see what happens”.

Since February 2014, the cardinal has been based in Rome where he serves as the Holy See’s first Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. “The biggest challenge is to find out what’s really going on,” he says. “The systems were underdeveloped,” he explains, “and before we started – and the Holy Father was aware of this – it was impossible for anyone to say accurately just where we were in the Vatican with our money, in terms of our assets and debts and even, as emerging now, to get our annual budget as to whether we’re in a deficit or not. In July we will be publishing the accounts from 2014 and this year’s budget.

“Now it’s already been stated that with more efficient and accurate bookkeeping we find that we had more assets than had been declared previously,” he says, stressing that nothing untoward was happening, with inconsistency and erratic bookkeeping being to blame.

In addition, he says, “in common with nearly every country in Europe, we now have an explicit acknowledgment and recognition of the money we’re going to have to put in our pension fund.

“Now, everything’s okay for 10, possibly 15, years, but unless we put a very significant injection of money in, in 20, 25 years, there might be nothing. All the pensions that have been promised – all of those will be honoured, but the statutes of the pension fund have just been approved, so we’re working on taking that forward.”

Sceptical of claims that one of his biggest achievements in the secretariat would be replacing an ‘Italian’ way of doing business with an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ one, he says, “I don’t talk about the Anglo-Saxon way of doing finance. Some people who don’t like what we’re doing try to reject it or downplay it in that way; we just appeal to modern accounting standards and the principle of transparency, so we will be following basically the model of transparency that is used by the Swiss government, and we’re now – this is already in action – we’re already sharing information with the Italian authorities, the Swiss authorities, we’ve signed an agreement with the United States similarly.


“The whole culture of transparency is quite a novelty in the Vatican,” he says, adding that the impending budget publication should diminish to some degree the capacity for surprises and for people to make exaggerated claims about Vatican finances.

Veteran Vatican commentator John Allen regularly points out that Rome’s finances, despite myths of Vatican wealth, can usefully be compared to those of modern universities – in 2011, for instance, the Holy See’s operating budget was about €225 million,  during which year UCD’s income was just over €400 million.

The cardinal agrees that this general point is a sound one, while conceding that some of Rome’s assets are difficult to quantify – “how much is the Pieta worth?”, he asks, leaving aside how under Italian and European law the Vatican couldn’t sell them even if it wanted to. “We wouldn’t have anything like the cash or properties of a place like Harvard,” he says. “We’re small beer, the Vatican.

“There are not too many enormous changes that remain to be made,” he continues, explaining that systems are increasingly in place that should enable Vatican finances to be run in a consistent and transparent way regardless of who is in charge.

He cites Pope Francis’ recent appointment of Libero Milone, the former chair of Deloitte Italy, as the Holy See’s first auditor general, answerable only to the Pope, as a “radical novelty for the Vatican”, and also says that from next year on one of the ‘Big Four’ external auditors will be auditing the Holy See’s accounts.

“All these are, I think, significant and official developments,” he says. “We’ve got some work to do with our central treasury, with the way we manage our assets, but we’ve got to get these plans working. We’ve made a set of accounting procedures mandatory, and they’re being followed – in one or two cases a little bit reluctantly, but they’re being followed, so if we can make work what we’ve got in place, I think it’ll be very, very difficult, almost impossible to go back to the muddle and uncertainty and opacity that we had before.”

A crucial factor in how things are run now, he says, is the Council for the Economy, which sets policy guidelines and vets the secretariat’s work. “You’ve got eight cardinals and seven laypeople, and the laypeople are experts from all over the world of finance. They’re not there as advisers – they’re there as full voting members.

“I think it’s a very welcome development,” he says. “I mean here at this conference we’re talking about the role of the laity, and this is one particular area where generally the laity have more expertise than the bishops and the clergy. Sometimes, you know, you can have clerics who are very good businessmen, but even those wouldn’t have the wealth of experience or training that somebody who spent their life in high finance would have. And shouldn’t have!”

Just as clergy shouldn’t be tempted to take on the natural roles of the laity, so he’s wary of the laity being clericalised, pointing out that that would be a theme in his own conference paper.

“You know, the role of the laity is to take Christ out into the world,” he says, “and not to flee into the comfort zone of the local church community, because it can be much nicer and more comfortable with the people who think like yourselves in a parish community, than actually standing up for Christian principles and unobtrusively witnessing to the Faith in everyday life in business, sporting clubs, at the pub…

“I think one of the great developments in the English-speaking world in the last 20 or 30 years,” he continues, “has been the development of university chaplaincies in our secular universities, especially in the States, where overwhelmingly they no longer rely on just a single cleric, but have teams of young men and young women. We have teams in Sydney in our secular universities the last 10, 12 years – we’ve got 30 vocations, men and women, I’m not saying they all were generated there, but they’ve been through our chaplaincy system.”

He also adds that “especially for other people”, another way of taking Christ into the world is movements like Catholic Voices, as represented by Catholic Comment in Ireland.

“We’ve got to get young people speaking to young people,” he says. “Young people expect old cardinals like myself to have something to say and, you know, they listen, generally, but they certainly listen to their peers when they stand up.

“So Catholic Voices is a very, very welcome development, a real contribution – I mean they made a wonderful contribution before the visit of Benedict to England, and especially in the social media where stupid ideas, misrepresentations and hate can spread so quickly, that if there are young people there following these things, well prepared, able to speak and put the point of view – that’s real evangelism.”

If Pope Benedict was often misunderstood through being presented through a “lens” that made him seem “a bit of a baddie”, so a different lens distorts Pope Francis in another way, the cardinal thinks.

“For the papers left of centre, they very much approve of Pope Francis,” he says. “Now, he’s got great strengths. He for years has genuinely lived as a poor man. That’s attractive to many people.  He has a great understanding of the importance of public symbols, of teaching moments, whether travelling in a bus or car rather than a limousine. He’s living in Santa Marta where he has company.

“Now,” he says, “if Benedict had said some of the things Pope Francis has said – and, we might say in Australia, got away with – Benedict would have been roundly castigated. I mean the Pope has very explicitly spoken against abortion, against euthanasia, homosexual marriage, he speaks quite a bit of the Devil, of the spirit of evil, but sometimes these are filtered out of the message that goes to the world.”

Regardless of media filters, the cardinal thanks God for Pope Francis’ popularity, and says his support for Rome’s economic reforms is “absolutely essential”, such that “we couldn’t do it without him”. He has great hopes too for the Pope’s recently announced reforms of the Vatican’s diverse media operations. Describing the proposed reforms as “very, very promising indeed”, the cardinal says “that will be opposed, but if we get that into place that will represent another significant contribution”.

Overall, he says, “you can’t understand the Holy Father without remembering that he’s an old-fashioned Jesuit, and a South American Jesuit”.

Stressing how the Pope’s approach to economics is heavily influenced by his experience of life in Argentina and in particular the slums of Buenos Aires, where he made a point of placing extra priests, he describes how on a visit to Assisi he witnessed the Pope spending over an hour embracing 50 to 100 very badly disabled people.

“His compassion,” he says, “is absolutely genuine.”