An eminent physicist and former parliamentarian are among five extraordinary Sydney Catholics who received honours from Pope Francis for dedicated service to the church and society.
Dr Gilbert Vella, former head of the School of Biomedical Science at the University of Sydney, never saw a conflict between his passion for scientific research and his faith.
“Even from my uni days you’d have these discussions that science is all you need but to me science opens up what God has done,” he said.
“You can see the beauty of nature and how it all fits together. Every time I find some new thing, I’m just amazed and constantly surprised by the grandeur of it all.
“I see the imprint of something much bigger and can’t see how people cannot believe in a God, myself.”He said he was humbled and grateful to receive the award of Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (Cross for the Church and the Pope) from Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP on behalf of the Holy Father on 7 December.
Archbishop Fisher presented three papal knighthoods and two papal decorations to recipients in a special ceremony at St Mary’s Cathedral Chapter Hall.
The distinguished honours recognise service to the church and society through a variety of contributions in politics, the judiciary, science, social outreach, education, governance, and youth and parish ministry.
“It’s my honour to have contributed to the parish life of the Strathfield and Mortlake communities and to the St Vincent de Paul Society,” Dr Vella told the assembly.
“I was blessed to have wonderful parents in Charles and Lucia who taught me by their example the value of participating in and serving our parish community.
“And in my 40 years in Strathfield and nine years in Mortlake I was fortunate to have parish priests who encouraged me and valued lay leadership of various activities.
“I found all my involvement in parish initiatives greatly rewarding—not only did it encourage me to contribute to the community in a meaningful way, it also enriched my spiritual life.”
Gaetano (Guy) Zangari, a former state member for Fairfield who is now the manager for family wellbeing and education for Sydney Catholic Schools, made special mention of former parliamentarian Kevin Conolly for his support during his note of thanks.
Connolly and Zangari worked together from across the political divide to push hard, at great personal cost, against extreme abortion and euthanasia laws in New South Wales.
“Together in the trenches of parliament we stood up and defended the faith,” Zangari said.
Papal honours are usually awarded upon recommendations to the bishop of the recipients’ diocese.
Archbishop Fisher praised the “highly gifted” recipients for responding to their baptismal call to holiness and working to build up the church and society.
“The Second Vatican Council noted that there are many calls and gifts, as many as there are Christians. But sometimes it seems to me that the same person is given more than their share of gifts and callings,” he said.
He said all five could be called “spiritual overachievers,” approaching their daily work not as a job but a vocation out of love of God and neighbour.
“I congratulate all of them and join the Holy Father in thanking them for their service and for the provocation they are to the rest of us and to all Christians to contribute to building up God’s kingdom one brick at a time.”
PAPAL AWARD RECIPIENTS
Dr Gilbert Vella
Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice
In recognition of his profound Christian commitment to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy throughout the Archdiocese of Sydney.
Dr Vella has made an exceptional contribution to the life of the church as a faithful Catholic layman, husband, and father, particularly through his extensive work associated with the St Vincent de Paul Society.
After graduating from Marcellin College at Randwick, he moved to Warrane College and obtained tertiary qualifications in science and education, before completing a doctorate in physics.
He continued in that field, working as tenured lecturer and was subsequently appointed head of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Sydney.
Dr Vella is known for his sound and confidential counsel and for his indefatigable commitment to the poor and marginalised, serving at the coal face of outreach programs and on committees associated with their operation.
Indeed, one referee for his nomination stated he has never met a “more committed Vincentian” than Dr Vella.
He promoted World Youth Day 2008 at the parish level and has also served as secretary for his local Serra Club promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life.
His willingness to faithfully serve the church without thought of reward or recognition has been an inspiration to many.
This is perhaps most clearly evidenced by the fact that his children are committed Catholics and readily confess the inspirational role their father has played in their own lives of faith.
Br Nicholas Patrick Harsas FSP OAM
Croce Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice
In recognition of his Christian witness and outstanding promotion of the Catholic faith across his many roles in education over more than 30 years of religious life.
First professed on 5 February 1994, with his perpetual profession following on 19 August 2001, Br Harsas has spent his life promoting the faith as a Catholic teacher and principal within the Archdiocese of Sydney and across Australia.
The archdiocese honoured Br Nicholas with a Dempsey Medal in 2018 and he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2020.
In each of his roles and responsibilities, Br Nicholas has enabled and encouraged those around him and had remarkable success in fostering the faith through his work.
Foremost among his gifts is his fidelity to the search for God and the service of God’s people. A compassionate leader with a keen sense of justice, he is an invaluable asset to his congregation and the archdiocese more broadly.
He also enjoys the highest degree of respect and admiration from his fellow Patrician Brothers for his industry and indefatigability.
He has lived and worked at various Patrician schools within Australia and previously served on the leadership team of the Australia-Papua New Guinea province.
His commitment to the works of the Church and the advancement of the Catholic faith is impressive and enduring, and combined with his personal life of devotion serves as a wonderful testament.
Kevin Francis Conolly
Knight of St Gregory the Great
In recognition of his extraordinary legacy as a faithful Catholic leader in the civic sphere, his example of Christian charity in his personal and professional life, and staunch defence of the Catholic appreciation of the dignity of human life.
Kevin Conolly worked as a teacher in the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Parramatta for 14 years and then an employment officer for the Catholic Education Office for 16 years while simultaneously holding public office as a councillor and deputy mayor of the Hawkesbury City Council.
He also held several voluntary positions within the faith community and was elected to the state legislature as the member for Riverstone in 2011.
Throughout his 12-year tenure as a parliamentarian he consistently defended marriage, family and the dignity of human life from conception until natural death.
He obtained significant concessions from those who drafted a 2019 bill intended to decriminalise abortion up until birth, at great cost to his political career.
In 2021 during the parliamentary debate over proposed euthanasia legislation, he was a tireless advocate for the cause of life despite receiving scorn and derision from colleagues.
A Christian gentleman, he has been described as a man of integrity, faith and moral courage, who has never been known to speak ill of anyone and has never equivocated on questions of his personal faith.
He serves as a wonderful example to the next generation of Catholic leaders in the civic sphere.
Knight of St Gregory the Great
In recognition of his tremendous legacy as a faithful Catholic leader in the civic sphere, his witness to the corporal works of mercy in his personal life, and his staunch defence of faith and the Catholic appreciation of the inherent dignity of human life.
The son of Italian immigrants Mr Zangari began his career teaching in Catholic secondary schools including Marist College Parramatta, St Paul’s Catholic College Greystanes, Patrician Brothers College in Fairfield and Freeman Catholic College in Bonnyrigg.
In addition, he accepted an additional post as pastoral care coordinator and facilitator of a professional learning committee for pastoral carers in the southern region of the Archdiocese of Sydney.
He successfully encouraged students to volunteer with the local St Vincent de Paul Society Conferences in both Penrith and Parramatta.
Mr Zangari was elected to the state legislature as the member for Fairfield in 2011.
Throughout his 12-year tenure his defence of religious freedom and the dignity of human life from conception until natural death was unwavering, including during parliamentary debates which resulted in the decriminalisation of abortion and the passage of euthanasia legislation in New South Wales.
During the COVID-19 pandemic Mr Zangari also vigorously advocated for places of worship to remain open and accessible to people of faith.
He is committed to his local parish and his life of service was further augmented this year when he was invested as a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Honourable Dennis Leslie Mahoney AO KC
Knight of St Gregory the Great
In recognition of his extraordinary legacy as a faithful Catholic layman in the civic sphere as well as his humility and profound generosity in serving in a voluntary capacity those who needed his advice and assistance.
Serving as a judicial officer and a philanthropist, Mr Mahoney has volunteered his services and expertise in legal matters to institutions including the Benevolent Society of NSW, the Prince of Wales and Prince Henry Hospitals, and religious institutes.
His ability to deftly handle the most complex of negotiations led the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference to appoint him to the Catholic Schools Commission in 1974, when state funding for faith-based schools was a contentious political matter.
In 1978 he was appointed as a director of the newly-established Polding College Ltd. following the amalgamation of De La Salle Catholic College of Education and Good Samaritan Teachers College.
His chairing of the new board resulted in corporate governance consistent with the highest commercial standards, while his evident faith ensured that the Catholic identity of the new corporation was preserved.
His commitment led to the eventual recognition by the Federal Government of teachers training colleges as bona fide tertiary institutions, and the church benefitted from a supply of qualified teachers imbued with the charisms of various religious congregations.
In addition to his voluntary commitment to the governance of various Catholic institutes, he is a generous supporter of charitable works, recently making a substantial donation to St Vincent’s Hospital, and was the founding president of the Australian Association of the Order of Malta.