Vatican signals continuation of reform process

Vatican signals continuation of reform process

AD2000 Report

Archbishop Pell's appointment to Sydney

The announcement at midday, 26 March, Rome time, that Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne had been chosen to succeed the 77-year-old Cardinal Clancy as Archbishop of Sydney was one of the most momentous in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia. For it signalled in no uncertain terms the Holy See's determination to keep the reform processes - set in motion during the Synod of Oceania at the end of 1998 - firmly on track.

The fact that this move comes on the heels of a recent succession of strong episcopal appointments suggests a definite pattern is emerging. The fact also that a relatively large number of episcopal vacancies is opening up over the coming months adds further significance to Dr Pell's appointment - which will make him Australia's senior Catholic prelate.

Church leadership

If the vacancies are filled according to the recent pattern, the Church's overall leadership in Australia could be radically altered in quite a short time.

The Holy See's close interest in the condition of Australian Catholicism became evident at the time of the Synod of Oceania, when a meeting between heads of Vatican congregations and representatives of the Australian bishops led to an agreed documentation of urgent reforms, titled the Statement of Conclusions.

In an interview for the American monthly, Catholic World Report (May 2000), Archbishop Pell commented: "I think the Statement is a fair and accurate description of what's going on in Australia - but a bit understated". This estimate contrasted markedly with that of Cardinal Clancy.

During an interview on ABC Radio on 1 April, just days after Archbishop Pell's appointment was announced, Cardinal Clancy referred to the existence of what he called a "spy network" within the Church in Australia. He suggested that the Australian bishops had been undermined at the Synod of Oceania by unofficial reports sent to Rome by people critical of the state of the Church: "I came away feeling that our brethren in Rome didn't fully understand the situation in real life as we have it here. I would think that this group ... did exercise an undue influence in forming opinions and convictions over there. I think that was the big shortcoming of the meeting."

Some Catholics might respond that such "spying" would not have occurred had more bishops responded earlier to legitimate complaints about abuses.

A further factor adding an element of urgency has been that, despite an endorsement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference of the Statement of Conclusions in 1999, a number of bishops - once back in their dioceses and under the influence of their advisers - have been clearly dragging their feet. Their tardiness in curbing misuse of general absolutions, despite the Statement's directive to this effect, prompted two firmly worded follow-up instructions in 1999 and 2000 from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Even so, the illicit practice continues in a few dioceses.

If such clear-cut matters as the Third Rite have defied complete remedy, what hope could there be for substantial reforms in the more complex, deep-seated problem areas noted in the Statement of Conclusions, such as seminaries, liturgy, Catholic education, religious life and Australian Catholic University?

On reaching the prescribed retiring age of 75, Cardinal Clancy had offered his resignation two years ago, but Rome delayed in filling the vacancy. It is clear a good deal of thought has gone into such a crucial appointment, as, while Melbourne is numerically the largest Australian diocese, with one million Catholics, Sydney (despite being smaller, with the creation of two new dioceses out of its territory a few years ago) is historically the nation's senior See, whose Archbishop has traditionally received a cardinal's Red Hat.


While Dr Pell has been Australia's highest profile prelate, many felt his work in Melbourne, following his appointment there in 1996, needed further consolidation. But the Holy See may have felt time was running out if a suitable man was to be found for Sydney - a need which apparently took pastoral priority over historical precedents.

At the time of writing, Archbishop Pell's successor has not been named and may not be until just before Dr Pell's installation in Sydney on 10 May. But after such a bold move in appointing Dr Pell to Sydney, it would seem that the modus operandi Rome has brought to the Australian scene would ensure a smooth succession in Melbourne.

For if Sydney and Melbourne are both led by strong bishops, the impact on the rest of the Church should be considerable. The fact that two of the three other largest cities will also be in solidly orthodox hands strengthens this likelihood, when added to the calibre of appointments in smaller dioceses.

Rome's present challenge is therefore to maintain the momentum of its orthodox reform strategy by filling the upcoming vacancies with more strong candidates.

In Western Australia, the Diocese of Bunbury south of Perth needs a new bishop, while the auxiliary to Perth's Archbishop Barry Hickey has retired. In Melbourne, there could be two auxiliary positions, with the departure of Bishop Grech for Sandhurst and the naming of Archbishop Pell's successor. In New South Wales, the Diocese of Wollongong needs a new bishop, with Bishop Wilson's departure to Adelaide, and the Diocese of Wilcannia- Forbes is also vacant. In Queensland, the Brisbane Archdiocese will need two auxiliary bishops, with the retirement of one and the appointment of Bishop Putney to Townsville.

Not surprisingly, the announcement of Archbishop Pell's appointment to Sydney has sent shock-waves through the Church and even the secular media. Most media reports and commentaries were predictably biased, with a couple of TV channels inviting a homosexual activist, an outspoken radical opponent and Paul Collins to react to the appointment. They duly obliged with hostile and negative comments - one predicting Archbishop Pell would drag Sydney's Catholics back to the Middle Ages!

Chris McGillion, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, referred to Dr Pell as an "arch-conservative" who had "drawn criticism for his hardline positions" on the Serrano "art" exhibition, "refusing to serve communion to openly homosexual Catholics" and angering feminist groups by opposing access to IVF programs for single women. Liberals, he said, regarded Pell "as a disaster for the Church," since his style of leadership contrasted with that of Cardinal Clancy which had given Sydney a "relatively tolerant and pragmatic" character. "Gay and lesbian school teachers in Catholic schools," he warned, "will want to keep their heads down, and ordinary Catholics are likely to hear much more of their old-time religion."

The Sydney Morning Herald com- mented in its editorial on 28 March: "The Vatican clearly believes that what Dr Pell has wrought in Melbourne is what Sydney also requires." The move, it said, reflected "a conservative Pope's desire to install a strong, conservative representative of the Church in Australia." Dr Pell, it continued, "fits the mould of a church leader impatient with those who question papal authority and doctrine and unbendingly opposed to change on such issues as the place of gays in the Church, women's ordination, the celibacy of priests and contraception." No doubt Archbishop Pell would plead guilty to these charges.

However, the comments of Archbishop Hickey were far more positive, during a breakfast meeting of Perth businessmen on 30 March, as reported in the archdiocesan weekly, The Record.

He described Archbishop Pell as a "strong leader" whose appointment would bring to a head the many issues polarising the Church in this country and help resolve them.

These issues, he said, included the questions of "Cafeteria Catholicism" versus the Church's authority, calls for so-called democratisation of the Church as opposed to the rightful role of its hierarchy, a trend towards forms of pantheism as opposed to seeing God as Creator of the universe, seeing sexuality as self-expression rather than affirming its true place in committed love and marriage, and a loss of understanding of what happens in the Church's liturgy. On every one of these issues, Archbishop Pell "stands four-square with the Church's teaching."

Meanwhile, the new Archbishop's media dexterity was well to the fore during interviews at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 27 March following the announcement of his appointment.

Not surprisingly, several questioners fastened on the Archbishop's firm stance on homosexuality, notably his refusal to give communion to gay activists wearing sashes in Melbourne's cathedral.

One questioner asked: "Archbishop Pell, this is the gay capital of Australia. Will there be any room in your Church for gays?" To which the Archbishop replied:

"There is room. There is a long tradition of sin in the Catholic community of every variety and there is always room for all people of faith and varying degrees of human weakness. The Church is not primarily concerned about sex ... Our message morally is much broader than that; but my primary concern is to defend and protect marriage and the family, and all the other teachings on sexuality come from that concern."

Church teachings

He told one questioner: "There will be no new Pellian documents here. I will only be teaching squarely what Christ and the Catholic Church teach and I will present those consistently and with compassion - the cards will fall as they do."

He responded somewhat tongue-in-cheek to a query as to why the Pope had appointed an "outsider" to Sydney: "We are all Australians and, as you know, modern society is very mobile. The Anglican bishop in Melbourne is from Sydney and the police chief is from New South Wales, so modern people move around."

The lessons learned during his five years as Melbourne's Archbishop will no doubt stand Dr Pell in good stead when he moves to Sydney. While he may not have the same detailed, first-hand knowledge of the archdiocese that he had in Melbourne - which assisted him in finding reliable experts for key positions - there are many equally orthodox, qualified people in Sydney, anxious no doubt to work with him.

The challenges Archbishop Pell confronted in Melbourne will face him again in Sydney. The St Patrick's Seminary awaits reforms, as does the Catholic school system. The new Melbourne religion texts, launched in schools this year, could be a ready- made resource, while finding a counterpart to his Melbourne right-hand- man, Monsignor Peter Elliott, to supervise religious education would be an important priority.

Clearly, while Sydney in 2001 is an even more daunting challenge for Archbishop Pell than Melbourne was in 1996, his experience of putting reforms in place over the past five years will make the task more manageable. His level of success in Sydney will determine, in large measure, the future health of Catholicism in Australia as a whole over coming decades.

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