Cardinal Pell's UK interview: Liturgy, Missal translation, World Youth Day

Cardinal Pell's UK interview: Liturgy, Missal translation, World Youth Day

Luke Coppen

The following are extracts from an interview with Cardinal George Pell by Luke Coppen, editor of the London 'Catholic Herald', during Cardinal Pell's visit to Oxford University in March. Cardinal Pell gave the inaugural Thomas More Lecture for the Oxford University Newman Society. The complete interview is available from

Luke Coppen: The Catholic commentator John Allen once described you as a "lightning rod" in the Catholic Church. Is that a rather painful position to be in?

Cardinal Pell: Well, that's somebody else's description. Whether the position is painful or not, where you find yourself you make the best of it.

So how do you deal with all the flak?

Well, I certainly cop a bit of flak, but anyone in public life does. I try not to provoke unnecessary flak. I try not to be too provocative or unreasonable. Having said that, I think it's important that somebody is putting their best foot forward for Catholic tradition.

You're very familiar with Pope Benedict. Is there anything that he's done since his election that's surprised you?

I was very pleasantly surprised that his first encyclical was on love. I thought that was very good. I wasn't surprised by his interest in the liturgy. I regret the way the whole lifting of the excommunications of the Lefebvrist bishops has been set out of context by the controversy over Bishop Williamson.

So you think it was correct to lift the excommunications of the four?

Yes, I do. I think it's certainly a worthy goal to try to reconcile that wing of the Church. But as I've said, and the Vatican has said, if they are to come back they have to accept basically the teaching of Vatican II, especially the teaching that the state can't coerce belief, even if it happens to be a Catholic state (not that that exists anymore). And they have to accept the condemnation of anti-Semitism.

So you do believe that Vatican II contains certain teachings that all Catholics must sign up to?

Yes. Basically we have to accept the Creeds and there's a hierarchy of truths. But I think it'd be quite incongruous wanting to be formally reconciled with the Church if you explicitly disavow key elements of Vatican II.

As opposed to merely thinking that some of them need more explanation.

Or more development, yes. I mean, you either agree or disagree with the condemnation of anti-Semitism. It would be quite inappropriate for somebody to be formally reconciled with the Church who was seriously and explicitly anti-Semitic.

On some of the other points, they say the Vatican II text is ambiguous and they say to Rome: "Tell us what they mean and we'll tell you if we agree with it."

I can understand that and we'll see where they go on that. But a couple of times before I think we've been very close to reconciliation with them. I hope it does succeed but on those other occasions we didn't quite get there.

Do you think it will succeed this time?

I've no idea. I wish it well. I haven't been involved in the discussions. In some way the SSPX situation is connected to the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

Only in some respects, because most of the Catholics who like the old liturgy aren't Lefebvrists.

What do you make of the impact of Summorum Pontificum around the world. Do you think it's been better received than some thought it would be?

Possibly. It hasn't made a great deal of practical difference in Australia because the number of Catholics in Australia who understand Latin, are deeply attached to it and want the Old Rite [are quite small]. There are congregations in Sydney. We have a traditional Latin Mass once a week in St Mary's Cathedral during the week, but the numbers are not enormous. So it hasn't caused significant pastoral tensions in Australia.

You've done your best to encourage it, celebrating a thanksgiving Mass for Summorum Pontificum.

Yes. I was grateful for it. I'm a believer in development within a framework of established tradition and doctrine. But I fully endorse the Holy Father's emphasis on the continuity of the tradition.

At the thanksgiving Mass you said we're on "a journey of development and reform" and that that's still going on. Do you believe that some traditionalists think that Tradition with a capital T is unchanging and not subject to development?

Well, I think that's a fundamental misapprehension. Let me give you some very rudimentary examples: the recognition of the number of books in the New Testament. An angel didn't come and tell us that. The good Lord didn't say there'll be X number of books. The books in the New Testament are divinely revealed. They are written by people in the Church and were recognised by the Church. Then there are the clarifications of the nature of God, the Trinity, the Councils. They are all examples of development of a deeper understanding of the truths at the heart of the tradition. So tradition is certainly changing and developing.

Where do you think the liturgical development is heading?

I don't know. I'm not a professional liturgist. I am keen that we strengthen the vertical dimension of the liturgy, if we can, in the popular understanding, so that it's very obviously not just community-centred, it's God-centred, it's an act of worship. I'm very sympathetic to that. I'm even sympathetic for the Canon of the Mass that the priest has his back to the people.

As something obligatory?

Yes. Now there's nothing like a consensus in favour of that at the moment. I think I would be in favour of it because it makes it patently clear that the priest is not the centre of the show, that this is an act of worship of the one true God, and the people are joining with the priest for that.

Another way of acknowledging that: I'm very much in favour of having a crucifix in front of the celebrant during the Mass when we're facing the people.

Between the priest and the people, in front of the altar?

Yes, sometimes it might be flat, sometimes it might be vertical. But that distracts attention away to some little extent from the main celebrant. I think also I find the figure of Christ is a great aid to recollection and prayer while you're saying the Eucharistic Prayer.

As president of the Vox Clara Committee you have been advising the Congregation for Divine Worship on the new English translation of the Mass. Do you hope that the new translation will help to emphasise that vertical dimension of the Mass?

Yes, very much so. I'll be surprised if there's more than a few hiccups when it comes it. I think it will go well. I think people will recognise that it's beautiful and appropriate. We've tried to keep changes to the community responses, the people's parts, to a minimum. The translations are accurate, forceful and some of them in particular are very beautiful.

It looks like it has the potential to be controversial. Some people may say: "This translation is being thrust upon us by Rome."

Nothing's being thrust upon anyone. This matter has gone out repeatedly to the national hierarchies. It's approved by the national hierarchies. The level of change now will be very small in comparison with the enormous changes that were foisted upon the people just after the Second Vatican Council. Undoubtedly there will be a small element which will try to resist them. I'm quite confident the overwhelming majority of Mass-going people will quickly learn to love them. The quality of the language there will emphasise that we're not talking to the bloke next door. We're worshipping the one true God. Not in old-fashioned, archaic language, but in beautiful, strong and appropriate language. I'm quite confident it will be successful.

Where are we up to in the whole process?

I think towards the end of next year ... For about five years I've been saying we've got two years to go. And now that's becoming more and more likely. So people will be aiming towards the end of next year for it to happen.

Will the whole English-speaking world be going together with the same translation?

Yes, I think so. There might be little quirks here and there. But that's certainly the ambition.

How pleased will you be when that happens?

Our committee isn't doing the work. That's being done by ICEL. The credit must go to ICEL for that work. But we've made a bit of a contribution and I'll be delighted when it comes home - and come home it will.

You hosted World Youth Day in Sydney last July. By all accounts it was a tremendous success. It has been described as the largest gathering in Australia's history.

That's accurate, I think, at the final Mass there were 400,000 people.

What was your most cherished moment?

I had a number of such moments. But I think the moments of silence at the vigil on the Saturday night, the moments of silent prayer and Adoration on the Sunday morning. As I've said on a number of other occasions, on the Sunday morning the prayerful silence was so profound I could hear the birds singing. Most of the people there were young Aussies. Now a lot of people would suggest that young Australians couldn't be so quiet. And yet that was the case.

Are you beginning to see the fruits of hosting World Youth Day?

I think so, yes. There haven't been any examples, I think, like St Paul being thrown from his horse. But none the less lots of steady growth. I suspect that the minority position of the Catholic community in Australian life has been changed by the impression the wonderfully happy, good and faithful young pilgrims made on the Australian majority. One very significant example - it's an isolated example, but one parish priest received 25 adults into the Church, and these were adults who came into the Church - three or four families - as a result of hosting World Youth Day pilgrims. That's one example.

And do you know about the impact on priestly vocations?

Yes, they are up to some extent. Not spectacularly, but to some extent. In a thing like vocations probably that effect will be over the next five years or so as distinct from a few months afterwards.

Barack Obama's decision on stem-cell research is just one of a number of decisions that have disappointed pro-lifers since he took over. But on the other hand, there were Catholics who thought he was an appropriate choice at the last election. What do you think about that?

Well, there might be many areas of his policy that could have been attractive on humanitarian grounds. If you're trying to spread wealth and healthcare, restore prosperity, end wars - these are attractive options for Christians. I can't remember the details, but I was looking at the changed voting patterns among traditional Christians. More of them voted for him than I think did for Kerry [in the previous election].

But his record on life issues is very, very bad indeed. I'm still hoping against hope that he won't do the worst, that he won't bring in that Freedom of Choice Act. I wish him well, because so much rides on his decisions. But he's got a very slight curriculum vitae to be a president of the United States. He ran a brilliant campaign. I think he's an outstanding public orator. We've yet to see him really do anything that has significantly changed the situation for the better. But it's very early days yet. And he has inherited an appalling financial situation. Military-wise too, it's a difficult situation.

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