Tess Livingstone has done Catholics and observers of the Church a tremendous service in penning this brilliant biography of George Cardinal Pell, arguably one of the most influential prelates of the Catholic Church today. She traces his simple beginnings in a way that is simultaneously detailed and breezy, never bogging down in minutiae that would distract the reader. Countless interviews with contemporaries, peers and superiors show she has done a massive amount of research on the Cardinal. Her insights into his deeply-held faith, his trust in God and his simple humanity paint a picture of a man that the Catholics of Australia are proud to call their own.
But this is not a fluff piece for the PARADE section of the Sunday paper. Ms. Livingstone's writing can be hard-edged and unflinching when discussing the less Christian side of some of the people who have had contact with Cardinal Pell over the years. Likewise, she points out His Eminence's less-than-gentle mannerisms as a young seminarian: in one memorable quote, a disgruntled former seminarian mentions, "He [Pell] thought that pansies belong in the garden, not the seminary." Refreshing words indeed for those of us exposed to the seamier side of religious life in the 1970s, with various diocesan and religious clergy preying on youth and children. Pell's commitment to "Muscular Christianity" is wonderful to see develop. His inspiration to young men and women in Australia is the reason the Church "Down Under" will provide holy men and women to serve the Catholic Church for many generations to come. An excellent biography of a truly good shepherd.
Livingstone's biography of George Cardinal Pell sheds light on one of english-speaking Catholicism's most important Cardinals. Pell's rise in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been meteoric, and particularly pivotal for Australia. Were he slightly older, I believe Pell would have been "papabile" in the most recent conclave.
The tone of Livingstone's work is somewhat apologetic. As an American, I was familiar with Cardinal Pell through his writings in First Things and through his reputation in First Thing's pages. I was unaware of the degree to which he has been excoriated in Australia. Before reading Livingstone's work, I imagined Pell to be a sort of "Ratzinger Down Under." Now I have a more nuanced appreciation of the Cardinal - his work bears similarity to Msgr. Levada of San Francisco, the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That is, he is not the archconservative Tridentine-Mass loving 1950's priest that his critics (or supporters) would have one believe, but a priest, bishop, and cardinal who takes his faith very seriously but reconciles a respect for dogma and tradition with a genuine love for his fellow Catholics.
The defensiveness of the book is understandable considering the assault that Pell was under when the book was written.
One intiguing aspect of the book is that of the unfamiliar Aussie syntax. Many of Pell's statements are slightly confusing - he seems to be saying something inconsistent with the context in which it is placed by the author. At times it is necessary to read Pell's statements a few times before appreciating the particular Aussie expression.
I was also taken aback by the degree of Pell's involvement with "social justice". Pell's comments on American actions in southeast Asia were somewhat disconcerting. It is as if the American left-wing view of Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia found a stronger long-term purchase in Australia than it did in America.
All told, Livingstone's work is a valuable introduction to Pell, a figure with whom discerning Catholics should familiarize themselves.