Flanked by two enormous eighteenth-century portraits of long-dead judges, on Saturday 13th November Cardinal George Pell delivered the Oxford University Newman Society’s annual Thomas More Lecture—sponsored this year by the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham—in the Examination Schools on the High Street.
As the President—Vincent Elwin, of Mansfield College—observed in his opening remarks, Pell himself inaugurated the annual lecture in 2009. On that occasion he spoke on religious and secular intolerance and its implications for Christian witness in the contemporary age. Much has occurred in the intervening years, including the cardinal’s time—as he himself put it—“in the clink”.
The original title of the talk was “The Suffering Church in a Post-Christian World”. This Pell had immediately rejected: “I don’t do ‘post-Christian’.” He spoke instead on the subject of Catholic witness in a suffering world, and of the Church’s power of endurance “in even the most poisonous of environments”. His huge frame appeared visibly frailer than in previous years, but the familiar Antipodean tones had lost little of their zest.
There was encouragement, perhaps, for those who have been unsettled by various recent developments in Rome. Noting that Ss Thomas More and John Fisher died for the Papacy “when there was not one truly worthy pope during their lifetime”, the cardinal appealed to G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy of 1908: “the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
“We are here to stay and struggle,” Pell insisted. “We are not going away.” His words found a sympathetic audience. A purple zucchetto provided a splash of colour on the front row; further back the distinctive Newman Society tie, with its stripes of red, navy, and gold, abounded. A number of senior members of the University were present, and members of the public; students made up the rest. A young photographer paced the room, clutching his camera in one hand and a large rosary in the other.
Not everyone was pleased to see the cardinal. Five protesters quietly bore placards including “Solidarity with Victims” and “God is Close to the Broken-Hearted”; their leader, Katharine Perry, herself a Catholic, explained that this was unrelated to Pell’s acquittal and release from prison in April 2020. She referred instead to the criticisms made of him by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. In the light of those, Dr Perry said, the Newman Society’s invitation was “unnecessary, deliberately provocative, and totally insensitive”.
The society’s statement on the controversy emphasised that, while it deplored “the scourge of sexual abuse which has afflicted Holy Church in recent decades”, it was unable to make any judgement on “allegations which have not been subject to trial in the judicial system”. Instead it had taken Pell’s audience with Pope Francis in October last year, a few months after his release from prison, as “a sign for us of the good standing of the Cardinal within the Church”.
At the drinks reception that preceded the dinner in Pell’s honour at the Catholic Chaplaincy on St Aldate’s later in the evening, the cardinal greeted guests from a chair while the same group of protesters stood silently outside. He led the Newman Society’s lengthy Latin grace before Mr Elwin presided over the meal, which in the tradition of the society was served to the assembled company by the members of the committee.
As in the Examination Schools, the President and his guest of honour were framed by two more enormous portraits, this time modern reproductions of images of Ss Thomas More and John Henry Newman. A festive mood soon descended on the proceedings; a spokesman for the Newman Society, of which Pell has been a Patron for many years, described the cardinal’s most recent return to Oxford as both “a joy and a privilege”.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund