When I was a philosophy lecturer at University College Dublin, our staff Newman group wanted to invite some notable figure or other to give a talk in the millennium year. We knew we’d never get someone like Cardinal Ratzinger.

Who else?

I knew nothing of then Archbishop George Pell, but I noticed that The Tablet hated his guts. I figured anyone The Tablet can’t stand must be good, so myself and my pal Dr Joe McCarroll, head of the Pro-Life Campaign in Ireland, arranged to call on him when we were on holiday in Australia.

I was surprised when the Archbishop opened the door of his residence himself, and made us tea—first time that sort of thing had happened to me.

One of my favourite interactions with Cardinal Pell was when he was preparing for a much-publicized debate on ABC television with the archbishop of atheism, Richard Dawkins. He asked a bunch of his advisers to throw up all the questions he might be asked, and when Dr Michael Casey, his private secretary, said, “the Eucharist”,’ I figured Dawkins would never ask.

But he did, as you’ll see below. Here are a few exchanges from that 2012 debate:

Pell: What he says is what Richard is describing as nothing is a sort of mixture of particles and perhaps a vacuum with electromagnetic forces working on it. That’s what [physicist Lawrence] Krauss is talking about under the heading of nothing and there’s a very good review of this in the New York Times, not a pro-religious paper at all, where Krauss is absolutely denied and demolished, although especially by his supporters claiming that he says things come out of nothing. He doesn’t say that.

Dawkins: You can dispute exactly what is meant by nothing but whatever it is it’s very, very simple.

(Audience laughs) Dawkins: Why is that funny?

Pell: Well, I think it’s a bit funny to be trying to define nothing.

Later, on Darwin:

Pell: Darwin was a theist because he said he couldn’t believe that the immense cosmos and all the beautiful things in the world came about either by chance or out of necessity. He said, “I have to be ranked as a theist.”

Dawkins: That is just not true.

Pell: It’s on page 92 of his Autobiography. Go and have a look.

And on the Eucharist:

Dawkins: I don’t believe you really mean that the wafer turns into the body of Christ. You must mean body in some rather special sense.

Pell: Mr Dawkins, I don’t say things I don’t mean.

Dawkins: Well, then what do you mean then?

Tony Jones (moderating the debate): Can I ask you whether you mean it in a metaphorical sense…?

Pell: No, I don’t. I understand it according to a system of metaphysics. It was spelled out by the Greeks before Christ came, which we have adopted, that is there is a substance which is the core of a being and it is revealed to us through what are called accidents. Now, I believe that the core of the being becomes the bread, becomes the body and blood of Christ and continues to look exactly as it was. We believe that in the Catholic Church.

Next day, Helen Hofman, a Baptist and our house manager, said that was the first time she understood the Catholic doctrine we call transubstantiation.

The huge miscarriage of justice that led to Cardinal Pell’s spending over 400 days in some of Australia’s toughest prisons in solitary, in the light of Providence, can now be seen as the best thing that ever happened to him.

Thanks to the kindness of the Chancellor of the Archdiocese, Chris Meney, I visited Cardinal Pell in prison. The prison staff were incredibly kind, allowing us an almost two-hour visit (double the official time).

Utterly unbowed, Cardinal Pell seemed to be thriving. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Emeritus Pope Benedict in the later years of his retirement thoroughly enjoyed having the Cardinal’s Prison Journals read to him. The thousands of letters he received nearly broke the prison postal service—including some deeply appreciated letters from Pope Francis.

Like Pope Benedict’s writings, Pell’s Prison Journals are a classic of Christian spiritual literature. I advised him that he should condense the Journals into a single volume. Now I’m grateful to Fr Fessio SJ, of Ignatius Press that he printed the lot, they’re an enthralling read, the best thing the Cardinal had ever written.

Not all that long ago, I was coming back from a class in English with Korean friends when I met Cardinal Pell in our sitting room. He was bellowing “Babylon has fallen!” The news had just come in that Cardinal Becciu, the bête noir of the Cardinal, had been fired by Pope Francis. But as someone who himself had undergone an abuse of process, Cardinal Pell felt his fellow cardinal had been most unfairly treated.

Another time, when I accompanied Cardinal Pell to a film, The Death of Stalin, where there’s huge jockeying for power in the Central Committee, he remarked that the Kremlin was just like the Vatican.

I often compared Pell’s travails to those of Saints Thomas More and John Henry Newman. More was imprisoned and lost his head for high treason. Cardinal Newman was falsely accused of libel by an apostate priest, lost the case, and received a heavy fine. This led a commentator to say: “a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country, and Roman Catholics will have henceforth only too good reason for asserting that there is no justice for them in matters tending to rouse the Protestant feelings of judges and juries.”

When the proprietor of Alfredo’s restaurant near Circular Quay expressed his concern for him, then before the courts, Cardinal Pell said with utter conviction that he was completely at peace; he and God knew he’d done nothing wrong. And that was all that mattered. It was a peace that never left him.

Why did so many, including me, a mere member of the basso clero, love him?

He used to call Lesley, the lady who cleaned our rooms, his angel. So when he left for his appointment in Rome, she presented him with an angel. For the Cardinal, everyone mattered, whether they were a visiting Patriarch or Lesley. A rather pompous bishop demanded some liturgical garment for a ceremony in St Mary’s Cathedral and our hardworking sacristan had to tell him he wasn’t Gammarelli (the papal tailor).

Stung, the high-ranking cleric complained to Cardinal Pell, who told our sacristan he’d been quite right.

From a loftier view now than his earthly 6-foot 4-inches of height, may he continue to keep the Church on the right rails of truth and governance as he tried to do all during his life as seminary rector, Archbishop, Cardinal, Prefect of the Secretariat for Economy – and even in his retirement.

Fr Brendan Purcell

Fr Brendan Purcell is an Assistant Priest at St Mary’s Cathedral. He has held the position since September 2010, and before that he taught philosophy at the University College in Dublin, Ireland.