The Catholic Church in Australia reacted with surprise and sadness at the news of the death of Cardinal George Pell, with one former prime minister saying the country had “lost a great son and the Church has lost a great leader.”

Pell, prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, died Tuesday in Rome at the age of 81 from cardiac arrest.

“This news comes as a great shock to all of us,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said in a first reaction on Facebook.

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pell, for comfort and consolation for his family and for all of those who loved him and are grieving him at this time.”

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne reacted “with great sadness” to the news, writing on Twitter: “May eternal light now be his, who so steadfastly believed in the God of Jesus Christ.” 

“Larger than life, Cardinal Pell was a highly intelligent and well-read man who took a genuine interest in everyone around him,” Bishop Richard Umbers, an auxiliary bishop in Sydney, said on Twitter. 

“A pioneer for much good in Sydney, Australia, and the entire church. Please join me in praying for the repose of his soul. Requiescat in pace.”

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Many faithful added personal messages on social media, with one mourner writing: “Rest In Peace, my dear Cardinal, in the arms of the Lord. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26.” 

Another commentator said: “I have no doubt that Cardinal George Pell will be watching over our church throughout the days to come.”

Appointed in 2014 as the first prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell served as archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014. Before that, he was archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001. 

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrote in a statement published on Twitter that Australia had “lost a great son and the Church has lost a great leader.” 

Abbott, who briefly trained as a Catholic seminarian, praised Pell as a “committed defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a staunch advocate for the virtues of Western Civilization.” 

Born in 1941 in the town of Ballarat, Pell was ordained a priest at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, in 1966. He studied both at the Pontifical University Urbaniana and the University of Oxford. 

As the highest-ranking Australian prelate of the Church and an outspoken public figure, Pell was described as “progressive on many social issues” but frequently polarized public opinion when it came to morality and the faith.

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“As an ecclesiastical and cultural conservative, he attracted praise and blame from all the expected quarters,” the former prime minister of Australia wrote. 

“In fact, he was a very pastoral priest who well understood the human stain and was more than capable of empathizing with sinners while still counseling against sin.” 

Referring to Pell’s time in prison for alleged sexual abuse, Abbott added: “His incarceration on charges that the High Court ultimately scathingly dismissed was a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death.” 

“In his own way, by dealing so equably with a monstrous allegation, he strikes me as a saint for our times.”