Early this morning, as Australians were lazing in the land of Nod, Pope Benedict XVI was busy blessing Cardinal Pell’s new multimillion dollar pilgrim centre in Rome, known as Domus Australia.

And what a grand occasion it was. Not only was Il Papa there, dressed all in white, but the choir from Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral — comprising 13 men and 23 boys — was on hand to sing hymns and prayers.

On our rough head count, there were also three purple-capped Aussie archbishops, one red-capped cardinal, and more than two dozen bishops flown in from Down Under, making it an awesome display of ecclesiastical power.

Those who were keen enough to stay up past 2.30am to watch the live webcast — sponsored by Telstra — will know that Tim Fischer, Ambassador to the Holy See was in the front row, heading a list of distinguished Australians.

But the star turn of the opening ceremony, apart from Pope Benedict, was Pell himself, welcoming the “Holy Father” and telling him that one of the motives for establishing the centre was to strengthen Australian Catholics’ links with the papacy, which was “not just the longest-surviving monarchy in the world, but an essential part of God’s saving plan for his people”.

Seated on a wooden throne next to the altar in Domus’s huge chapel, Il Papa responded by welcoming everyone to this “little corner of Australia in the ancient city of Rome”. He then sprinkled some holy water and unveiled a plaque.

With its 32 hotel rooms, Domus will be a “home away from home” for Catholic Australians, says Pell. Close to the Vatican on Via Cernaia, it offers Aussie breakfasts and an Australian take on Catholicism, with a two-metre high portrait of the Virgin Mary, entitled Our Lady of the Southern Cross. It also houses several Aussie relics, including bones belonging to Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop and Saint Peter Chanel, “Priest and Protocol-Martyr of Oceania”, a Marist missionary who was killed in the South Pacific in 1841.

Pell’s new pilgrim pensione is a former monastery, used by Australia’s Marist Fathers as a student hostel until the 1950s. Father Bob of the Marists in Sydney told The Power Index it was “cold and depressing” in those days, and “needed a lot doing to it” when the Catholic Church bought it in September 2008.

But with renovations complete, it now looks a million dollars: the imposing stone facade has been returned to a beautiful honey colour. The inside looks like a Roman church should, with marble, murals and gold leaf, which has been lovingly restored.

So how much did it all cost? And who exactly is paying? The Power Index popped the question to Katrina Lee, director of Catholic communications, who was in Rome for the ceremony, but did not get a precise answer.

Cardinal Pell’s biographer Tess Livingstone has suggested the bill will be close to $30 million, with the archdioceses of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and the diocese of Lismore bearing most of the load. But The Power Index has been told by another source that $85 million may be closer. Ms Lee says this is “way off the mark.” Sadly, we cannot confirm either of those numbers from media releases issued since 2008, or in any of the financial reports published by the Catholic Church.

During the ceremony, Cardinal Pell said the project has been funded by church money, donations and loans that will need to be repaid. Last week he confessed he would be shocked if Domus did not pay its way. “I once said in a moment of rashness that blind Freddy could make a bob out of this and I think we will be able to”.

But our sums suggest George may have a surprise in store. Even if Domus cost only $30 million, that would amount to almost $1 million per room, which would be $80,000 to borrow at market rates. This would require an average room rate of $220 a day (and 100% occupancy) just to pay the interest bill. If the total cost were $85 million, the room rates would need to average $620 a day.

The room rates at Domus, complete with “hearty Australian breakfast”, appear to fall well short of that. And staff costs, taxes, insurance, maintenance, marketing, heating, water, laundry, electricity and administration will also have to be paid for.

So who will fund the likely shortfall? Again, we don’t know and the church says there won’t be one. But as one of our informants ventured: “Australian Catholics are entitled to ask if the money could have been better spent. St Vinnies or Catholic Schools could all use that sort of money.”

Peter Fray

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