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Archbishop Anthony Fisher: Funeral homily for John Richard Johnson

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PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“It is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money from, or to regard them merely as so much muscle power… To the rich I say… once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest that one owns belongs to the poor.”[1] Was that Marx or Engels? No, it was the nineteenth century Pope, Leo XIII.

“If someone seeks to amass great wealth, refusing a third or even a fifth of his possessions to others [by way of taxes and donations], then he is a cruel tyrant, an antisocial savage, an insatiate beast.”[2] Lenin Perhaps? No, the fourth century Church Father, St Gregory of Nyssa.

“Don’t be distinguishing between deserving and undeserving poor. You’ll easily make a mistake… Instead, be generous to all, paying no attention to appearance or condition…”. One of the Fabian socialists, surely? No, it was the second century Christian apologist, St Clement of Alexandria.[3]

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“Human labour expended in the production and exchange of goods or services is superior to the other elements of economic life… It is the duty of society… to help citizens find sufficient employment… in fitting conditions… for worthy remuneration… And attention must always be paid to the universal destination of earthly goods… Men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor… And in extreme necessity, a man has the right to take what he needs out of the riches of others.” Mao, obviously. Well, no, the Second Vatican Council.[4]

Catholic social teaching is derived from truths God has revealed about Himself and about us. It starts with a high view of the human person as the image of God, and so of their spiritual nature and inalienable dignity, needs and potential, rights and responsibilities, purpose and destiny. It takes a similarly high view of the human community, its opportunities to serve the common good, encourage people to live virtuous lives, protect the innocent, promote solidarity and justice, and exercise a preferential love for the poor. Such a rich vision of the good life for individuals and societies can only be sustained by a sense of the transcendent end of every person and the presence of God’s kingdom already among us, if also still unfolding as we collaborate with the divine plan.

John Richard Johnson might not have used such highfalutin language to articulate it, but his vision of the good life and a civil society was deeply informed by Catholic social teaching. He had four great loves – family and country, faith and politics – and in his mind they were one. Whether he was raffling chooks at the pub or pushing Fr Mac’s Heavenly Puddings in the parish, you were never quite sure if he was fundraising for the Church or the Party or both. He was fond of saying goodbye to you with “Keep the faith – both” – that is, religious faith in the Church and secular faith in the ALP.

Others will speak of his life in the labour movement and the party, as an MP and as President of the Legislative Council, and in his so-called retirement when he continued to haunt Trades Hall and the Polding Centre, promoting his many causes, even when moving was painful and required two sticks. But in all these matters Johno was a true believer: not in the sense of a zealot, but in the sense of a decent man with deep commitments, a man who practised what he preached with energy and compassion, a man “tough and tender, jokey and serious”[5], a man I witnessed bargaining with God while he was living and trusting to God as he was dying. When our First Scripture Reading spoke of those whose posterity will be not just their descendants but also the memory of their wisdom and righteous deeds (Sir 44:10-15), it was surely speaking of the likes of Johno.

I knew him somewhat these four decades past; many of you knew him longer; Pauline, for one, for the best part of six decades. When I first met him, I was a university student interested in pro-life and other social justice causes. Johno was still fairly freshly in parliament and had made a splash by raising just such causes in his maiden speech. He gently tried to recruit me, of course, as he tried with Tony Abbott, but we had other paths to walk. But he succeeded in encouraging me, as he did so many young people down the years, to live our ideals in the world.

“I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves,” the Lord Jesus once said to His disciples, perhaps with a branch meeting, state conference or even parliamentary session in mind, “so be wily as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). Not: some of you be shrewd snakes and some be innocent pigeons. Not even: be sometimes the wily serpent, sometimes the innocent dove. No: Jesus wanted the same disciples to be both at the same time. Johno was just such a Christian mix of innocent idealism and political shrewdness; he integrated the ideal and real. I fear that mix is increasingly rare, as the pressures to choose between ideals and pragmatism grows in politics and culture. But by integrating these things Johno showed what integrity means. Whatever political wheeling and dealing was going on, he would not be confined by the binaries of left and right, Christian -v- secular, faith or politics. The very same ideals that made him champion for the rights of the unborn and elderly against those who would kill them, moved him to campaign for the rights of workers against those who would exploit them and the needs of the homeless from those who would neglect them. The same passion he had for true marriage and family made him care passionately that everyone have the opportunity to be loved and treated justly. It meant, too, that Johno could serve with similar passion diverse organisations from the Catholic Evidence Guild to Prince of Wales Hospital, Warrane College to State Lotteries, the Randwick Labor Club to the United Nations Association, the Cancer Council to The Catholic Weekly.

A true believer. A man of integrity. Thirdly, Johno was a man of history. He placed great weight on where we came from. The virtue of pietas translates rather poorly into English as ‘piety’. It means grateful reverence towards the sources of our being for what we have received: our God and Church, our locality and people, our ancestors and family. Johno treasured the traditions of the Party and the Church, and saw their interconnections if not occasional tensions. Others may retell the story of his putting Gough Whitlam up to asking Cardinal Clancy the price of a burial plot under this cathedral. But in its humorous way it revealed how united was that heritage he treasured.

Such a heritage, however, is not just for personal enjoyment; it gives us identity and direction for our time; but it is then for us to hand on. “Unless we nurture the young, unless we pass on the heritage, our political parties will die and our political institutions will die. I hold certain principles, and I hold them very strongly,” Johno confessed in his last speech to Parliament, and I pass them on. “There is a Latin phrase,” he finished, “tenete traditiones, which means ‘keep to the traditions’. Traditions are important. Be it on your head if you do not keep them. Look after the young.” It is a serious question whether a man of Johno’s character and ideals would be welcome in our political parties and achieve such prominence in our parliaments today. Well, Johno, who is now trying to sell St Peter some raffle tickets while organising his faction in purgatory at this very moment, is doubtless praying, as we might, that there be room for his ilk going forward.

For without passionately believing in something, without integrity of personality and life, without handing on a heritage of ideals to others, both politics and religion can become mere power games, self-serving or empty. But by living with such qualities a man might say at the end, as St Paul did, “I’ve fought the good fight to the end; I’ve run the race to the finish; I’ve kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness… which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me.” (2Tim 4:6-8)

Johno, I know you would not have presumed on such a reward. You wanted our prayers for your soul rather than our adulation. You seek our intercession for your Resurrection rather than our rhetoric. And so we offer this Requiem Mass for you. After Holy Communion we will sing your favourite hymn Faith of Our Fathers. It well captures your qualities as a true believer, a man of integrity in character and action, a man who has run the good race and has passed on a baton of ideals.

Faith of our fathers! We will love
both friend and foe in all our strife;
and preach thee too, as love knows how,
by kindly words and virtuous life.
Faith of our fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death,
we will be true to thee till death!”



[1]     Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum

[2]     St Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor §66

[3]     St Clement of Alexandria, Quis Dives Salvetur?

[4]     Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes 67-69

[5]     Michael Easson, in his obituary for the Sydney Morning Herald, (14 August 2017) described him as “Papal knight and ALP life member, the man was tribal – fiercely loyal to a brand of politics only found in the old NSW ALP, and universal – one of the Catholic Church’s most public champions in Australia, tough and tender, jokey and serious, concentrated energy in support of great causes.”

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