Pope says Cardinal Pell ‘was a great guy’

Pope Francis has hailed Cardinal George Pell's role in reforming the Vatican's finances.

Pope Francis has hailed Cardinal George Pell's role in reforming the Vatican's finances.

Pope Francis has acknowledged being criticised in Cardinal George Pell’s writings but has praised the late Australian prelate as “a great guy”.

In his first interview since the December 31 death of retired Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis addressed critics of his pontificate, which marks its 10th anniversary in March.

Francis’ comments to the Associated Press, delivered on Tuesday at the Vatican hotel where he lives, came at a particularly difficult time as the pontiff navigates conservative opposition to his insistence on making the Catholic Church a more welcoming, inclusive place – criticism that he attributed to the equivalent of a 10-year itch of his papacy.

“You prefer that they don’t criticise, for the sake of tranquility,” Pope Francis said.

“But I prefer that they do it because that means there’s freedom to speak.”

Pope Francis has been attacked for years by conservatives and traditionalists who object to his priorities of social justice issues such as poverty, migration and the environment.

“If it’s not like this, there would be a dictatorship of distance, as I call it, where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything. No, let them speak because … criticism helps you to grow and improve things,” he said.

The first salvo in the latest wave of attacks came from Benedict’s long-time secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who revealed the bad blood that accumulated in the past 10 years in a tell-all memoir published in the days after Benedict’s funeral.

In one of the most explosive sections, Archbishop Gaenswein revealed that Benedict learned by reading the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that Francis had reversed one of the former pontiff’s most significant liturgical decisions and re-imposed restrictions on celebrating the Old Latin Mass.

A few days later, the Vatican was rattled anew by the death of another conservative stalwart, Cardinal Pell, and revelations that the Australian was the author of a devastating memorandum that circulated last year that called the Pope’s pontificate a “disaster” and a “catastrophe”.

The memo, which was initially published under the pseudonym “Demos”, listed what it considered problems in the Vatican under Pope Francis, from its precarious finances to the pontiff’s preaching style, and issued bullet points for what a future pope should do to fix them.

Pope Francis acknowledged Cardinal Pell’s criticism but still sang his praises for having been his “right-hand man” on reforming the Vatican’s finances as his first economy minister.

“Even though they say he criticised me, fine, he has the right. Criticism is a human right,” Pope Francis said.

But he added: “He was a great guy. Great.”

The body of Cardinal Pell, who was Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, will lie in state at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney ahead of a requiem mass and private burial service on February 2.

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