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John Molony and his Catholicism



Great Hall University House, Australian National University, 1 March 2019. Listen

Whenever John Molony needed a four-digit PIN, he used 0325 — the year of the First Council of Nicaea which adopted the Nicene Creed: 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.'

John was Catholic to his bootstraps: Catholic, Irish Australian, a Labor man and a Carlton supporter. He'd have loved the inaugural speech delivered in the Victorian Parliament last month by the new Labor member for Hawthorn — yes, Hawthorn of all places. Like us, having acknowledged the traditional owners of the land on which he and his listeners had gathered, the Honourable John Kennedy paid his respects to the elders past, present and emerging and then declared, 'I rejoice in the proclamation of Pope John XXIII that "half the world is Irish and the other half wished they were"!'

John's children tell me that he brought everything back to Catholicism. He was fond of offering the paternal advice, 'Every self-conscious act has moral import and has a moral dimension.'

I first met John at Marion Le's restaurant here in Canberra. It was a meeting of the Indo-China Refugee Association of which John had been president. It was shortly after the Keating government decided to implement mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The Immigration Minister was Gerry Hand who hailed from the diocese of Ballarat. John had been the co-founder and president of the Belconnen branch of the ALP. Susan Ryan tells me that with 'his common sense, experience and deep social justice values, John made an important contribution to the fledgling ACT ALP'. At the restaurant meeting, we were planning how to confront this move by the Keating government. John got to his feet, pipe in hand, and declared, 'Gerry Hand of course was my altar boy. I'll be quite happy to go up to Parliament and tell him that he ought to know better.' John's Catholicism drove his passion for social justice, and most especially his concern and sustained practical assistance for refugees landing on our shores.

On this very day 74 years ago, John entered the gates of Corpus Christi Seminary at Werribee having been educated at St Patrick's College Ballarat. Coming from a family of slender means, the seminary provided him with the prospects of higher education without the need to draw on family resources, thereby allowing his siblings to get on. This pleased John. He was a brilliant student. He was marked out for great things. He was plucked midcourse from his philosophy studies at Werribee and sent to Rome for theology studies, and then studies in canon law. Most of his fellow Australian students in Rome became bishops. And John was definitely marked out to be one. Michael Costigan who is with us today recalls that John when leaving Propaganda College in Rome in June 1953 after six years study rushed for the taxi calling to his companion, 'Come on George, let's get out of this bloody place!' Costigan says, 'I think he was always influenced more by Cardijn than Aquinas ... He dutifully completed a course in canon law, but is better remembered by the shack-dwellers under the ruined aqueducts, where he became known as "the lover of the poor", than by the legal eagles at the Urban Athenaeum.'

After a stint in Boston as a canon lawyer, John returned to Australia on 3 February 1954. The republican Molony was fond of recalling, 'On that same morning, in the Royal Yacht Gothic, flanked by six naval vessels and countless craft of all varieties, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia, but no longer Defender of the Faith, arrived with her husband, Phillip, at Farm Cove.' John's arrival home went relatively unnoticed. He then served as a priest in the Ballarat Diocese for nine years. In his second memoir By Wendouree: Memories 1951-1963, John writes:

A crucial turning point came in my life in October 1963. There was a discussion at the presbytery table during dinner that touched upon matters related to the Second Vatican Council. The Second Session had just opened and I passed some remark in relation to it that elicited a response of such gravity from a senior priest at the table that I have never since been able to remember what I said to prompt it. He solemnly intoned the words, "You have a schismatical mind." At that moment something died within me. I had always looked upon schism with horror because it entailed an act that tore the very Body of Christ asunder. That a fellow priest would accuse me of a tendency to schism was unbearable ... .In the evening of that day I concluded that I was in danger of losing the faith and that, to remain in Ballarat, was to ensure that the loss would become permanent. The thought horrified me because I knew that the faith could pour out from my soul like water into sand. I knew I could not leave the priesthood because I was marked forever as priest. I did not want, then or ever, to leave the priesthood and I trembled in the depths of my being at the loss of celebrating Mass that my departure would entail. All I could do was hold onto the simple decision to flee from the clerical state.

John's children recall that when John resigned from active priestly ministry, then marrying his beloved Denise and commencing his brilliant academic career here at ANU, he was always interested in modern popes and their social teaching. But he was not much interested in modern theology about dogma. He had his dogma and practice — and it was back in the 1950s. For this learned history professor, Irish Catholicism and the pre-Vatican II theology manuals were enough. He was fiercely loyal to people and to institutions, most especially the Catholic Church. He did not speak about Jesus very much. It was more about the church. But as his children proudly profess, 'We have had the faith handed on to us.' He would always carry on about the madness of the hierarchy, but he did not want outsiders making criticisms.

At John's requiem mass, his great friend Bishop Pat Power recalled that at the 1989 synod of the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn convened by Archbishop Francis Carroll under the title 'Coming Home in Christ', John spoke near the end of the proceedings saying, 'I would like to thank Fr Geoff Lloyd for nominating me as a delegate to this Synod and Archbishop Carroll for accepting that nomination. After many years, I feel that I have finally come home.' Geoff Lloyd had studied in Rome with John. John and Denise though regular mass goers had felt sharply the hurt and alienation in a Church which in those days required couples in their situation to leave their hometowns so as not to cause 'scandal'. At John's funeral mass, Bishop Pat Power announced, 'I am proud to be using his ordination chalice for his requiem Mass today.'

Three years ago, I had the pleasure of launching John's book Don Luigi Sturzo: The Father of Social Democracy on campus in the Molony Room of the Emeritus Faculty Office. This political biography of Luigi Sturzo, the father of Italian social democracy in the pre-Mussolini era was the fruit of John's lifetime reflections on the Catholic Church, democracy, politics and the state. It was first published in 1977. This is how he starts the book:

Luigi Sturzo was an old man of 81 when I met him in Rome in 1952. It was just prior to his nomination as senator by the President... To my intense surprise he knew more about Australia and its political system than I had anticipated or indeed dared to hope. I put to him the question 'Do you think a Catholic political party would have a future in Australia?' His negative reply was immediate, direct and decisive. He went on to explain that in a society where the democratic process worked satisfactorily and where the people differed in their religious convictions it was much more reasonable and positive for everyone to work within the already established party system.

64 years after that meeting, John told us: 'I resolved that I would go back to that time and place and, if possible, live again that story.' (ix) And he did. At the launch attended by his young grandchildren Monica and Vincent, John said that two years after his meeting with Sturzo:

[T]he Split in the ALP took place and the Democratic Labor Party was founded which thus ensured the continuation of a Coalition government for another two decades. I had visited Father Sturzo at the behest of Bob Santamaria whom I had never met, but Bishop O'Collins of Ballarat had put him in contact with me. Bob wanted to know what Sturzo thought of the idea of the founding of a Catholic political party in Australia. Sturzo's vast experience of political systems, his thorough knowledge of Australian politics blended with his innate prudence and he was visibly appalled at the idea which he rejected out of hand. In his judgement such a step would be socially divisive in a country where the citizens were free to vote for political parties of their own choice. Most of us are painfully aware of the consequences of mixing politics and religion to the grave detriment of both State and Church in Australia in that period.

There was a painful parting of the ways between Molony and Santamaria in 1961. John later wrote:

Nothing, even the plea that the gravity of the situation in respect of a possible Communist threat to Australian security, can excuse the betrayal of the divine mission of the Church that had been taking place since the mid-1940s in Australia and principally in Melbourne. That Archbishop Mannix must be regarded as the principal actor in that betrayal rather than Bob Santamaria is unquestionable. The duty to maintain a correct relationship between the Church and State lay principally with the Archbishop.

In his splendid eulogy for his father in their parish church at Aranda, Damien Molony recalled:

The full complexity of who Dad was came to me here at Easter Mass (in 2015) when the celebrating priest fell ill and couldn't continue. Almost without hesitation Dad, as if he had been doing it for the last 50 years, finished the consecration. He didn't make a single mistake until the end when, as he told us later, he couldn't remember the final blessing in English, having confused it with the grace. Seamlessly he switched to Latin. What struck me then and now is that I was listening to a voice with a very ancient past. While Dad was utterly contemporary in his interests — he had a social, intellectual and spiritual heritage that made him unique and provided a narrative bridge to a world that neither materialist populism or cultural postmodernity recognises. In that respect, as with his reading of Cook at Cooktown, Dad's life offers me the hope that there are still ways to tell stories about who we are and who we might become that can transcend the insistent presentism of much public discourse.

I think John would have been well pleased had he heard the new Labor Member for Hawthorn the other night declaring: 'Charlie Murphy was the last Labor Member for Hawthorn, from 1952 until 1955 when things fell apart over the so called "split" with Charlie choosing to side with the Labor Anti Communist Party. With Labor now back in Box Hill, Burwood, Hawthorn and a strong swing in Kew we look forward to a return to good old days!'

At the Sturzo launch three years ago, John left us with this challenge:

I can only end by saying 'I beg of you to watch the night. At all times and in all circumstances remain ardent democrats whose basic principle is the equality of every human being. Stand on that and light the darkness with the flames of freedom, justice and unflinching integrity.' Come then what may. You will awake to a blessed dawn.

A Catholic to the end, John believed in the blessed dawn of resurrection. May he rest in peace.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of the Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, John Molony



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Existing comments

Now, that was a Catholic!

Joan Seymour | 01 March 2019  

Discovering this eulogy pulled my heart into a warm yet combative old place. I remember my father, a pillar of the Church, in the 1950s passionately opposing any notion of Catholics leaving Labor to form their own party. But we were in New South Wales, which generally didn't follow the Queen City way. Much thanks to Frank Brennan. One for the cockles.

John J. Finn Stephenson | 12 April 2020  

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