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Pell's Power: Authenticity

January – Icons of Faith

January 15, 2023


Jn 1:29-34

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, 'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.' I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel." John testified further, saying, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."

Pell’s Power: Authenticity

John the Baptist was very clear that his mission in life was to show the way to Jesus Christ. He is one of the first champions of orthodoxy. “Orthodoxy” comes from two Greek words: “orthos” and “hodos” – meaning “correct” and “path.” So “orthodoxy” is used within religion to indicate the set of beliefs that is in accord with the official teaching of the faith.

How do we find that “true path?” Just as in the times of Jesus, we need to look to the right leaders and indicators, like John the Baptist. One of the most striking characteristics of John the Baptist was his authenticity. He preached conversion, and he worked on his own conversion. He himself became a sign and symbol of the faith that he was proclaiming.

In Eastern Christian art, the “icon” is central. The word “icon” comes from the Greek word for image, “eikon.” This form of Christian art portrays a religious scene, but invites the faithful to delve deeper into the Christian mystery, often including key words or symbols that help to understand the theological significance of the subject matter.

In our living out of the faith, some men and women serve as icons. Looking at their testimony and witness helps us to understand something about living out the faith. As a Church, we are mourning the death of Cardinal Pell, an Australian prelate who lived a life of service to the Church. Like St. John the Baptist, we can look to him for authenticity.

As a young man, he went to the seminary, in spite of having signed a contract to play Australian rules football. He gave up his dream of playing professional football to become a priest, but never lost his passion for the sport.

His priesthood gave him experience as both a pastor and a seminary rector, responsible for the formation of future priests. He was auxiliary bishop and then bishop of Melbourne, before becoming Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He was named a cardinal in 2003 and gained prominence as an outspoken defender of orthodoxy among the English-speaking bishops.

In 2014, he accepted a position from Pope Francis, overseeing the Secretariat for the Economy in the Vatican, helping to promote the reform of ecclesiastical finances urged by the Holy Father.

Outspoken about orthodox Christian morality, he was attacked and there were allegations of grave misconduct. Although the charges seemed rather flimsy, he was convicted in court in 2018, and spent 13 months in jail. The Australian High Court reviewed the case and the judges unanimously voted him “not guilty,” freeing him from the captivity he had been suffering. It is very worthwhile to read his prison diaries. He speaks about his daily rhythm of prayer, as well as progress in the case and personal visits he was receiving. He was unable to celebrate Mass, as wine was refused to him during his imprisonment. He did, however, have time to follow Australian-rules football, news of which features prominently in his notes. He went back to Italy, where he lived the last few years, until he passed away following a hip surgery this past week.

He seems to me to be an icon of the Church in the modern world. He is known for preaching the truth, and there was a concerted effort to silence him through accusation and scandal. Now, as he is facing the Creator, I think about how much spiritual strength he must have received from his great trial and how this prepares him even better for meeting our Lord. And let us pray for one another to have the strength to give witness to the truth in a society that wants to silence the truth and promote a very different set of values. We can also learn from him the good that can come from living through difficult times. So, when are going through difficult times, we can also pray about how this can prepare our hearts to be the men and women God is expecting of us. John F. Kennedy said famously, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.” We too can pray when life seems hard, “God help me to grow through this experience you are allowing in my life. Thy will be done.”

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