Papal honour for Labor stalwart Johno Johnson

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There’s no way long-time Labor Party stalwart and Catholic layman Johno Johnson will call himself ‘Sir Johno’, after having been made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great by order of Pope Francis.

The well-known and widely-respected former trade union leader and State politician is almost as well known for his humility and generosity to others as he is for his three passions in life: his family, the Labor Party and the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP with Johno Johnson and wife Pauline.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP with Johno Johnson and wife

Not that it would matter. Everyone who knows the doughty campaigner who served as a member of the Legislative Council for 25 years – 13 of them as president – probably wouldn’t mind: all were delighted to see the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, preside at the ceremony in Woolhara on Thursday, 10 September, where he gently but firmly placed the knightly insignia on the recipient’s shoulders.

To be made a Knight Grand Cross of St Gregory the Great is to receive the highest honour a pope can bestow upon a civilian or a layman; however, Mr Johnson, known universally as ‘Johno’, didn’t seem fazed in the least.

As he pointed out to the small gathering, which included a stellar lineup of present and former Labor leaders, he had never sought honours for himself and had long ago decided he would steadfastly refuse imperial honours. The lesson was clear: the occasion may have been a papal knighthood but it was Labor through and through.

In the meantime, it seemed that it was also true that behind every great man there is a great woman. Although she said little, Pauline Johnson did what few others are game to do, correcting her husband when he thanked her for their 63 years of married life. “It’s 53,” she said quietly with a smile as she leant forward to her husband.

Momentarily derailed, Johno paused for a second. “Well … I hope it gets to 63,” he said with a smile in return.

Among those present for the occasion were former Prime Minister Paul Keating, former Premier Barrie Unsworth, former Premier and Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, former NSW ALP president and Labor Council secretary John McBean, former MLA and government minister Tony Kelly and current State Labor leader Luke Foley.

Meanwhile, despite the overwhelmingly Labor presence but giving some indication of the respect and affection with which even opponents regard him, Liberal MLC Mike Gallacher was also on hand along with Labor colleague Greg Donnelly MLC.

Mr Keating told The Catholic Weekly the occasion was almost natural.

“John’s always served two deities, the Catholic Church and the Labor Party, and served them both well – conscientiously and well,” he said.

“And I think that being one-eyed – and John is, we all are – he would see not a ton of difference between the Catholic Church and the Labor Party. So there’s a kind of naturalness that the pope and the Vatican should recognise not simply his faith and work for the Church, but also his secular faith.

While Johno had been a mentor to many “… more than that, I think that he’s provided a kind of standard, a standard by which you measure fidelity to the Labor cause and a standard by which you measure his faith and religious observance … and even John’s opponents would always give him credit for being both a conscientious and good person, in both a secular and in a spiritual sense,” Mr Keating said.

Asked if he would like to see more people like Johno in politics, Mr Keating said the problem is there are too few like him.
“You’ve got to have belief to be in public life and John’s got a ton of belief. Belief is the emotive force of public thought and too many people in public life come equipped without a belief system,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Carr recalled how in his own earliest political days no task was too menial for Johno.

“I told Johno when I visited last here ‘I owe you a great deal’, and I meant it,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“He sustained me and encouraged me when I was building a political career. And no job was too menial for Johno.

“He would arrive in a rented shop that was going to be my campaign headquarters running for Maroubra with brushes and detergent, spray-on glass cleaner and roll his sleeves up.

“On polling day he’d get a leg of lamb, a loaf of bread, some tomatoes and mustard and set about feeding the army of polling day volunteers – nothing was too modest for him,” adding that the indefatigable fundraiser would run the canteen, a tea room and a pie shop, all in the Sydney Town Hall, at State Labor Party conferences.

And the individual he described as “a very good friend” never missed a chance to communicate his values: “He always argued the Catholic positions on the ethical, scientific challenges. He was absolutely consistent on that,” Mr Carr said.

Former Premier Barrie Unsworth told The Weekly he had first met Johno at the 1956 Labor Party Youth Council. “He was in the hallway having a bit of a dustup with another delegate with whom he disagreed, and I thought Johno was not the sort of person to be sitting on the other side of the room so, after that, I decided I’d be a friend of Johno’s – and I’ve been a friend of Johno’s ever since, and we’ve been in many interesting situations,” he told The Weekly.

While there were many milestones in life in which Johno had been significant “… probably in my case the most significant would be when my eldest son died. And the word went round and the next day Johno turned up at my house with a tea urn and a lot of cake and a lot of paraphernalia. And I said ‘Johno, what are you doing here?’

“He said ‘Barrie, shortly you’ll find out – you’ll need this’, because he’d also spread the word and people were calling on us to give their condolences. But Johno, true to form, was there with all the necessary wherewithal so that people could have a cup of tea and a piece of cake and share with us at what was a very sad time in our life.

“So they’re the sort of things that Johno is mindful of. He’s so considerate of other people. He’s the most unselfish person I’ve ever met and I think today’s honour is a tribute to that lifetime, so it’s a privilege for my wife Pauline and me to be here to witness the awarding of the papal knighthood because of all the Catholics I know, he’s the most deserving.”

The Grand Cross was, in a sense, the icing on the cake; Mr Johnson was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great in 2006 for, among other reasons, his lifetime role as a forthright defender of the principles of Catholic social teaching and of justice for all through his commitment in political life and work as a director or board member on a number of significant organisations, including the Prince of Wales Hospital.

His elevation to Knight Grand Cross recognised his ongoing philanthropic work, especially for a variety of Catholic charities but it especially made mention of the principles which have won him respect as well as opposition.

“Johno has always demonstrated a strong commitment to his Catholic faith and his speeches and addresses consistently reflect that conviction even when such views sometimes put him at odds with those around him,” the citation said, specifically mentioning his work for the Right to Life movement, the St Vincent De Paul Society and his encouragement over decades to numerous young Catholics to become active in public life.

However, while the occasion was Catholic and Labor it was, in the end, all about family.

On hand were three generations of Johnson family members ranging from the not-so-young to the very young.

It was clear all were deeply happy and bursting with pride for the man receiving the award from Pope Francis. At the end of the day it was also clear that for Johno Johnson, that was more than enough recognition in itself.