Cardinal George Pell reflects on celebrating (and not celebrating) the Mass

Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

Australian Cardinal George Pell celebrates the White Mass for medical professionals and health care workers at the Diocese of Phoenixís Virginia G. Piper Chapel in Phoenix on Nov. 20, 2021. Also pictured is Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, right. (CNS photo/Jeff Grant)

George Cardinal Pell has been a priest for nearly 60 years and served as Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney, as well as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. Throughout his many decades of priestly and episcopal ministry, he has gained an ever-increasing appreciation for the importance and role of the Daily Mass in the life of the priest.

His widely-publicized (and unjust) imprisonment threw a wrench into his consistent celebration of Mass.

He kept a journal throughout his trial and imprisonment, which is a remarkably fascinating and engaging read, and will surely become a classic work of Catholic spirituality. It has been published in three volumes by Ignatius Press (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3). Something that stands out is the fact that Cardinal Pell was forbidden to celebrate Mass during this time. The celebration of the Mass is one of the primary responsibilities and privileges of the priest, so to be denied the Mass was heartbreaking.

Cardinal Pell gave a talk recently at the Sacra Liturgia Conference, held in San Francisco from June 28-July 1, 2022.

Catholic World Report: You’ve come to San Francisco to give a talk at the Sacra Liturgia conference called “The Daily Mass in the Life of a Priest: Reflections after 406 Days Without It”. What was it like going so long without celebrating Mass?

George Cardinal Pell: Well, it was a radical change of program for myself. It was very different. But I didn’t feel abandoned by God. I kept up a daily routine of prayers. I realized that I just couldn’t say Mass. And so that was the way it was. And so I just got on with where I was and made the most of it.

CWR: And you couldn’t say Mass. You also didn’t attend Mass during that time, right?

Pell: I attended five Masses.

CWR: Five Masses in 406 days.

Pell: That’s right. A young priest came in twice when I was in Melbourne. And then an older priest, a friend of mine, came three times when I was down in Barwon.

CWR: What role does celebration of the liturgy play in the life of a priest? Or rather, what role should it play?

Pell: First of all, a parish priest, has to celebrate Mass for his people. But as well as that, I am one of that schools that thinks that daily Mass is one of the hallmarks of a priestly life. It’s an explicit act of worship, thanksgiving, and adoration. It’s the best prayer we have available. And it’s a very ancient custom, daily Mass, going back to the first centuries. And I think it should be one of the hallmarks of priestly devotion.

CWR: You mentioned that it was your practice that even on your day off, you would still personally celebrate Mass.

Pell: Yes, that was my practice. And is my practice.

CWR: It can be easy for parish priests, in particular, to get bogged down in administration and other issues like that and the celebration of the sacraments comes almost as an afterthought. Is it important for priests to focus on dispensing the sacraments?

Pell: Yes. And I think also to help focus on the sacraments or to properly order the priorities in priestly life, you’ve got to pray outside Mass: pray the breviary and perhaps devotions; certainly, try to meditate regularly. Without prayers outside Mass, it is difficult to focus on the central things, and it’s not too difficult to become distracted. I think Eugene de Mazenod, who founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, said it’s not impossible for a priest to live day-to-day life like that of an agnostic. And the remedy for that, certainly, a daily prayerful celebration of Mass helps. But on top of that, the breviary and meditation and regular devotions are a great amount of help.

CWR: You’ve been a priest for 55 years now, is that right? Nearly 56.

Pell: That’s correct.

CWR: And a bishop for 35 and a cardinal for 18. Has your experience of, and your appreciation of the liturgy — in particular, daily Mass — changed or developed over that time?

Pell: That’s certainly the case. I always appreciated the importance of daily Mass. But after a period of priestly life that became even clearer to me and as a bishop and as I moved around and as I looked at a little bit of work in liturgical circles, and as I started to read the writings, perhaps particularly of Cardinal Ratzinger on the liturgy, I realized just how closely related good, prayerful liturgy is to vitality in parish life. There is certainly a correlation, probably a causality, when the liturgy is poor in the true spiritual sense then almost certainly the Christian life of the parish is poor.

CWR: But as you took on more responsibilities as a bishop, an archbishop, and then a cardinal, was it challenging to maintain this rhythm of prayer in Daily Mass and your divine office and everything?

Pell: It was always a challenge. And when I was busy, as I was certainly as an archbishop and later, in a way that I’m not busy now, I found it was important to get to do your praying early in the morning, because often, as the day went along, you had many good reasons not to pray. So it meant that your life had to be organized and with a pattern of life and with prayer in the morning, particularly.

CWR: There are many valid and licit expressions of the liturgy. Many today speak of the need for uniformity in the liturgy. But what good does this variety of liturgical expression do for the Church?

Pell: We’re the Catholic Church — which means universal. And the different nationalities around the world, different classes of people, and different levels of education are attracted in somewhat different ways to different forms of prayer. So I think the variety of rites is part of the Catholic genius. This has to be balanced around unity, of course, but unity does not have to mean uniformity or the suppression of traditional and established and indeed beautiful forms of worship.

CWR: Is there value in the variety of liturgical traditions within the Roman Rite?

Pell: I think there is, simply because many people like to pray according to the vetus ordo, and I think they’re just too many and too numerous to be ignored. So I think the situation will slowly develop within the organic unity of the Church and peace will return in some form or other.

CWR: What advice would you give to priests — and laypeople, for that matter — who might not appreciate the value of of the daily Mass?

Pell: Well, I think it’s recommended by the Church today. Certainly, Pope Benedict has spoken about it explicitly; while it isn’t absolutely commanded by canon law, the official writings encourage us to celebrate each day. It gives praise to the good God, and is the source and summit of the Christian life. And I think it’s a good anchor for daily priestly life. So I would urge any priest who is not celebrating daily, in fact, to do so. And I think it will enrich his devotional life.