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The Journalist and the Controversial Cardinal | An Interview with Tess Livingstone

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Q: How did you come to write the book on Cardinal Pell, George Pell: Defender of the Faith Down Under ?

Tess Livingstone: I have been a journalist for twenty-four years now, mainly covering politics and education in the secular media, where I have also edited various sections and been Chief-of-staff/News Editor. With this background I write the book for the best of reasons –because I recognized that the life and achievements of Cardinal Pell were a very good story.

I have never worked in the religious media, but as a practicing Catholic I have been well aware of the battle taking place within the Church. This is particularly visible in Australia at present where several cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Perth for example) are doing reasonably well at attracting vocations to the priesthood while other dioceses and archdioceses are hurling down the path of lay-led Sunday liturgies as fast as they can.

Religious education did absolutely nothing for me at school, nor for my classmates. It was the crazy Seventies after all, when "anything went" especially in religious education.

I remember lounging on the library floor while the nuns droned on about social justice which it sounded to me, as a keen history student, that they had it all mixed up with some kind of utopian version of socialism. The more they pushed left-wing politics at us the less impression they made on me. Some days we'd listen to Neil Diamond or John Denver, but Kahlil Gibran was the teachers' ultimate hero and they made sure we knew this "great visionary" had been excommunicated by what they termed the "patriarchical church".

It was really all water off a duck's back–none of it stuck with any of us. It was just a weekly doze.

What did stick with me, however, were the Sunday sermons of my parish priest (pastor in American terms). It was amazing, when I first got to Europe as a university student and then later, I found the words of Father Tim Norris (to whom the book is dedicated, along with my daughter Jacinta Kate, 13), coming back to me time and again as I looked at St Peter's and saw the place of the Church in European history and looked at some of the religious artworks. Father Tim had told me to make sure I went to see some of the places that inspired John Henry Newman.

I did, and from then my interest in matters ecclesial gradually increased. Also, I was half way through University when Pope John Paul II was elected and it was impossible not to take notice of this extraordinary man and see the Church through new eyes. From there I gradually learned and read more and that lead, eventually, to an understanding of the battle taking place and an interest in the work of then-Bishop George Pell, whose articles I read long ago in a magazine called AD2000.

When as Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr. Pell became controversial, I found that most of my media colleagues were strongly opposed to him. But I could understand that the arguments he was advancing were in total accord with Church teaching and were drawn from a consistent and enduring set of values. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with him often, especially in regard to issues like respect for life, including the unborn.

It was also intriguing as to why somebody obviously so well educated and talented had given up so much in worldly terms to be a priest. When he was promoted from Melbourne to Sydney (an unprecedented move in Australia) I knew I wanted to do the book. Also, his life covers so much of the Church–country boy, student in Rome and Oxford, university head, seminary rector at a time of upheaval, Caritas leader, Archbishop, and Cardinal.

Q: What is the most important thing the book conveys to the reader, the one piece you hope your readers will walk away from the book remembering?

TL: I hope it conveys a sense that faith and reason are compatible and that the Church has a great deal to say about our world that is worth listening to and believing.

Q: How did the research and writing of the book affect you, the writer?

TL: It was very, very enjoyable and interesting.

It meant delving into a little bit of Church history (such as the creation of various congregations in Rome.) I loved going to Oxford where Dr. Pell studied, and it was really interesting to read up on subjects he covered in his early studies like the early Church fathers, about which I previously knew very little. That then led to other reading and I was amazed to learn how like the New Age adherents the Gnostics were in the early Church, for example. I'm still reading theology books because I find them so interesting and I think I'll be doing that forever.

Q: Do you feel more or less optimistic about the state of the world after writing this book?

TL: Optimistic, because I've seen how much Grace Our Lord provides if we turn to Him in times of challenge and trouble.

Q: What is your own background?

TL: My mother, who died a week before the book was published, had an Irish Catholic background and my father, like George Pell, was an Anglican (Episcopalian, I think Americans say) and pretty indifferent to issues religious. I was educated by trendy left-wing nuns and lay teachers in the 70s, then studied History, Literature, Politics and Journalism at University. I have worked as a newspaper journalist in Australia and the United Kingdom and in book publishing, which I love.

I am bringing up my daughter on my own, which is a challenge but also a great privilege. My heroes, past and present, include the Brontes, Jane Austen, Dickens (for evoking Victorian London in a way few others could), Muriel Spark (whose books I love), Churchill (and his wonderful home down in Kent which is open to the public), Oscar Wilde (a tragic genius), Anne Frank (did one book ever leave such a lasting legacy?) and many, many poets.

I also admire Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan (for daring to dream dreams that others thought were impossible then having the forsight to make them come true), and in the Church the present Holy Father, St. John (whose Gospel is what I turn to in moments of trouble), Edith Stein, and, on the home front, the late Irish/Australian Archbishops Duhig (Brisbane) and Mannix (Melbourne) and in more recent times Cardinal Pell for being such a pillar of strength to so many Australians and my Parish Priest Father Tim Norris who celebrates fifty years as a priest in 2005 and who is still working hard in his parish.

I also have clear cut views about Australian politics but I'll keep them to myself as I'm a working journalist.

I love travelling (especially in London and England and Europe) but it's also nice to be at home around the fireplace in winter with a book or around the pool in summer. Australians are lucky to have so much peace and security.

Related Links:

Compelled By Faith | An Interview with George Cardinal Pell

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