John Fahey on faith, cancer and the luck of the Irish

By Jordan Grantham, 21 November 2017
The Hon John Fahey AC and Mili Lee, St Patrick's Cathedral Parish Secretary at the St Patrick's Business Breakfast, 2017. Photo: Diocese of Parramatta/Jordan Grantham

2017 marks 25 years since the Hon John Fahey AC became Premier of New South Wales.

John made a decisive contribution to Western Sydney during government, initiating the M2 motorway and helping to bring the Olympic Games to Sydney. He is currently serving as Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

Less well known is John’s faith and Irish Catholic heritage, which shine through in his gift of the gab and warm nature.

“My mother was the youngest of 13 children and my father was the fourth of 12 children and they scattered, as many Irish in the decade of ’30s to many parts of the world, simply because there was no future at that time in Ireland,” John told Catholic Outlook.

“Luckily from my perspective, I had an Uncle who was the oldest of Dad’s siblings, who was ordained as a Catholic priest in Dublin in 1930 for the missions of Australia. He told me all his life they were missions in the eyes of the Irish back in the 1930s.”

“He convinced Dad to come here from New Zealand, where I was born, and this is where I’ve had so many opportunities, not only to live a good life but a most enjoyable one as well.”

John’s uncle, Msgr William Fahey, was a priest in St Patrick’s Church, Parramatta during the 1940s.

“He was parish priest initially in Picton and subsequently our parish priest in Camden,” John said.

“I’ve many to thank for where my life panned out in this country,” John said.

RELATED: John Fahey AC inspires at inaugural St Patrick’s Business Breakfast

This included primary school principals, who tutored John in preparation for the bursary examinations to attend boarding school at Chevalier College, Bowral.

“It was a ten mile bike ride from home in the morning,” he said, starting with Mass at 7.30am, an hour’s tuition before school and then another extra hour in the afternoon.

“And that got me the bursary that allowed me to go to Chevalier College in Bowral, where again, some good priests helped form whatever character I had,” John said.

Irish Catholicism imbued John’s childhood. The family home’s mantelpiece featured portraits of Ireland’s first President, Éamon de Valera and Pope Pius XII. He has worn an heirloom Claddagh ring since Msgr Fahey married him and wife Colleen.

In young adulthood, John briefly pursued a career in football, playing for the Canterbury Bulldogs. He had learned to play from Sister Kevin, an Irish nun, who wore the full habit while teaching the young children at St Anthony’s School, Picton.

John moved on to kicking goals in law and then politics, initially as member for Camden, which included the Luddenham-Warragamba area in the south west of the Diocese. From 1992 – 1995 he served as Premier of New South Wales. He then became federal Finance Minister and member for Macarthur from 1996 – 2001, where he made a vital contribution to reducing Federal Government debt.

After a career as head of the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), John currently works as Chair of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority, which encompasses parts of the Diocese of Parramatta’s territory.

John has always been community minded and the Catholic Church’s values have guided him in his many leadership positions.

“I believe that I had to practise the values that the Catholic Church has and teaches but they are, in the proper use of the word ‘Catholic’ – they’re universal values. No one can argue with those universal values,” John said.

RELATED: John Fahey AC inspires at inaugural St Patrick’s Business Breakfast

“Well, you put some of those values together and it’s fairly clear what’s right and what’s wrong.”

“I think it also gives you courage sometimes to take on difficult issues,” he said.

While Chairman of WADA, he saw the darker side of human nature first hand.

“Cheats are about fortune and fame. Why are you cheating? ‘Well, I’m going to be famous if I win.’ And a dividend also appears for many – ‘If I win, someone wants to pay me money to endorse their product or give me a job, or whatever’.”

Some nations do not promote the value of a moral compass, John said. Many countries provide huge incentives to win medals at all costs and no legal deterrents for misconduct.

“There’s the temptation,” John said.

John’s greatest challenge came in 2001 when he confronted death head on. Doctors predicted a 5% chance of surviving advanced lung cancer.

“I lost a lung. That’s pulled me back a bit because I’ve got no respiratory capacity. I can do about ten steps and then I start puffing badly, gasping a bit for air,” John said.

“During the radiation treatment, which went for seven weeks, where they effectively zap you I would be saying prayers the entire time,” he said.

“If anything it probably made my faith stronger.”

John has a wooden cross from Penola, where St Mary of the Cross realised her vocation to start the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Several Popes blessed this cross.

“During the radiation treatment, I hung onto that cross for dear life,” John said.

“I was given a one in four chance of making Christmas that year and a prognosis of one in 20, 5% chance, of getting five years survival. And here it is now, 15 years later,” he said.

“You ask – ‘Why me?’”

“I’ve also had this belief that I was given a second go, because not long after, we inherited two grandchildren from our youngest daughter who was not managing her life or parenting well and then she was killed in a car accident.”

“So we have now had these children for 15 years, she’s 18 now, and he’s 16.”

“And I often say ‘why me? why was I given a second chance?’ I think to care for them. What would have happened if I was gone? How would my wife, at her age have managed on her own? And there was no one else to take them.”

“We couldn’t love them any more than if they were our own children.”

“It’s been a great joy to have this opportunity to do it.”

 

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