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In one of his last interviews Cardinal Pell told OSV News: ‘We are not masters of the apostolic tradition, but its defenders and servants’

Australian Cardinal George Pell gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Rome Dec. 7, 2020. Cardinal Pell, former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and archbishop of Sydney, died Jan. 10, 2023. He was 81 (CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters)

(OSV News) — In what was one of his last on-the-record interviews, Australian Cardinal George Pell, former prefect of the Secretary for the Economy, told OSV News that with the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church lost “a wonderful man. A very kind man.”

Cardinal Pell, who himself was called that by many who met him, died unexpectedly Jan. 10 in Rome at age 81 due to complications from hip replacement surgery.

In his interview with OSV News, Cardinal Pell said Pope Benedict XVI “was one of the finest theologians of the last century” and “the best theologian who was ever the pope.”

“I don’t think any (other popes) wrote with the quality that Pope Benedict demonstrated – and for years, decades before he became pope – on such a variety of topics,” Cardinal Pell said. “He very much believed in reason and tradition and learning. In no sense was he a fundamentalist. He was quintessentially the opposite of that.”

Pope Benedict was also “very much a Christian gentleman,” Cardinal Pell recalled, “very much the German professor, a man of exquisite manners, high, high culture, a gentleman of the old school, and very, very polite.

“He wasn’t a particularly energetic or successful executive or manager. He was a man of faith and prayer as a writer and thinker,” he said. “And he was a spectacularly good participant in discussions, for example, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His ability to synthesize what he’s heard and analyze it and then present a point of view – I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who was better at it than him.”

Cardinal Pell acknowledged upon the death of the German pontiff that Pope Benedict was a prominent defender of “the basic and essential notion that the Second Vatican Council was in continuity with the past of the church. It didn’t represent a significant rupture,” he said.

“Pope Benedict realized that we stand under the word of God, which is normative as a unique authority,” Cardinal Pell said. “We are the defenders and the servants of the apostolic tradition. We are not the masters of the apostolic tradition. We are not free to change its essentials in either faith or morals.”

In what seems to be Cardinal Pell’s own definition of priesthood, he underlined that Pope Benedict “believed in the ministerial priesthood.”

“He believed the Mass was a sacrifice as well as a community celebration, that the Eucharist could only be celebrated by priests,” Cardinal Pell said, adding that the German pope “was certainly the opposite of any disreputable clericalism.”

“He believed that priests were there to serve and to help the people – that laypeople made up the overwhelming majority of the people of God, of the body of Christ,” Cardinal Pell said. “That’s the way it always was and always would be. He didn’t subscribe to the idea of a priestly caste, which was only there to be revered and obeyed. He believed in the priesthood as a life of prayer and worship and service of the people.”

As archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, Cardinal Pell would be one of the first bishops in the global church to properly tackle the abuse crisis. Regarding Pope Benedict and his handling of the abuse crisis, Cardinal Pell reminded OSV News that “the significant breakthroughs came under Benedict,” he said.

“I think Pope John Paul grew up in a different adversarial world and he wasn’t surrounded by the best advisers on this matter. And Benedict was very clear-headed,” Cardinal Pell said. “He also, I think, believed in due process. And that is enormously important in such a vexed and awful area as child abuse.”

Cardinal Pell also saw Pope Benedict’s protection and encouragement of the 1962 Missal as an essential part of the pontiff’s legacy.

He said: “We will see a reform of the reform in the liturgy. The transcendental dimension of the new Mass needs to be strengthened.”

Cardinal Pell told OSV News he was himself “completely devoted” to Tridentine Mass, which he said he “celebrated each day.”

Finally, in what seems to be his pastoral testament today, Cardinal Pell told OSV News: “We’ve always got to be looking for ways in which we can better present the transcendent to the people who are praying in our churches, and get them to open their minds and hearts to the greatness and goodness of God.”

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News.

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