George Pell Vatican church
Cardinal George Pell

Most Fridays in the same corner table at a favourite family trattoria in East Melbourne sits His Grace the Archbishop of Melbourne enjoying lunch with an informal court of colleagues. Denis Hart is a tall gentleman with an easy smile. He is friendly and nods fraternally to the other patrons. He chats warmly with the nonnas in Italian. His table is a happy one. A local regular life-affirming Friday institution.

Denis is as East Melbourne as anyone could be. He was born in the suburb and ordained in St Patrick’s Cathedral East Melbourne. He served in various roles in the Church institutions around East Melbourne, and in 2001 he succeeded George Pell as Archbishop and is still based in Albert Street, East Melbourne. He is 76 and may soon retire after many years of service to his local and wider community.

Denis is a “rules” man like his good friend and predecessor George, but the similarity ends there. Their personalities and characters contrast like chalk and cheese.

Big George is an ideological warrior. Tough. Aggressive. Bellicose. And black and white. Rules are rules. Right or wrong. No back-sliding. Deus vult!

Denis is cut from the same ideological cloth but he has a different tailor. A different style. He is more pastoral, more gentle and more liturgical than ideological. He will default to black and white but is willing to offer grey.

These days, church leaders are the “black and whites” or the “greys”. While, in cases like Denis, there is often an overlap, these labels are still helpful for sorting purposes, for understanding Machiavellian moves and for making predictions.

For example, among recent popes, the famous black/white rules men were John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the famous grey pastoral men were John XXIII and now Francis. It was Francis himself who said (in 2016): “Not everything is black over white, or white over black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life.”

Which brings us back to the See of Melbourne.

In Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell the investigative journalist, Louise Milligan, forensically describes the Australian church to provide a contextual background for her saga on Pell. She rightly describes Melbourne as “the jewel in the crown” of the Australian Catholic Church.

Since Vatican II, much of the struggle in the church between the black and whites and the greys has been fought out in Melbourne. Milligan describes how, even in the church’s response to child abuse, that Big George’s legalistic “Melbourne Response” was a Machiavellian (black and) white-anting over the grey bishops’ long-planned pastoral “Towards Healing”. George kicks an own goal!

His victory in Melbourne for the black and whites got him a red hat from JPII. He lost the support of his priests in Melbourne and other episcopal colleagues around Australia. On the whole, the Australian church has reflected the grey Australian egalitarian ethic, and the authoritarian black and whites of the George Pell ilk are rapidly losing ground.

It’s the grey pope’s job to appoint bishops and Francis has been assiduous in his recent selections. He has said that he wants “shepherds who smell like their sheep”. He eschews careerists and favours pastoralists. He preaches against judgmentalism and His Holiness is promoting discernment.

Pope Francis insists priests must be taught to see shades of grey. He asked the Jesuits to start teaching discernment over judgement. He has been repeating this in his daily homilies where he lives in the Santa Marta Vatican hotel. He is saying this on his travels and back-of-the-plane informal press chats.

This new Vatican pivot — from its sharp, black and white, mediaeval Thomist philosophy of judgment to a new Franciscan one of grey discernment — is guiding how he is choosing his bishops for his church’s future direction.

So what about the battle for the See of Melbourne? Who will replace Denis Hart, the black and white bishop with the somewhat grey style?

While we can probably predict it will be a grey choice by Francis, it is not an easy prediction to make regarding the name of the next Archbishop of Melbourne. In recent appointments, Francis has chosen successors in major sees, not from the groomed career bishops waiting patiently for their expected promotion. He has chosen little-known priests from outlying parishes where they’ve quietly been doing great pastoral work with their flock.

As the dramatic saga of George Pell is approaching its denouement — and the orderly retirement of his successor Denis Hart is on its way — I predict we will get the end of a black and white era in the See of Melbourne and grey skies over the bay.

*Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is a Melbourne cognitive scientist at School of Thinking and a writer at and has been a vaticanologist for 30 years.

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