National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

                                                        -- NCR photo/Toni-Ann Ortiz
Writer Gary MacEoin dies at 94

A life of travel, exposing oppression where he found it


Gary MacEoin, among the most prolific and influential Catholic journalists of the 20th century and a long-time contributor to NCR, died July 9 at Leesburg, Va. He was 94.

MacEoin lived in San Antonio, but was visiting his son in Virginia when he suffered an apparent stroke after a fall on May 21. His recovery had been slow. He suffered a fatal heart attack while being transferred between a rehabilitation facility and hospital.

Until recent months, MacEoin kept a rigorous schedule of writing and travel. He was the author of 25 books, including The People’s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters, written in 1996, after several trips to Chiapas, Mexico, to report on the situation there and to interview Ruiz. In 1998, using the Internet, MacEoin compiled and edited The Papacy and the People of God (Orbis), a look ahead by Catholic thinkers from around the world on what they considered essential in the next papacy. He edited dozens of other books.

During the past four years alone he wrote dozens of articles and editorials for NCR, reporting on his travels in Latin America, reviewing books and commenting on current events in the world and the church. There was always a personal flavor to his reporting, along with a concern for the poor and a disdain for hypocrisy and phoniness. Perhaps MacEoin’s greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to distill complicated issues into understandable prose and get to the heart of the matter or the soul of an interviewee. For example, his incisive NCR interview with Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz García in 2000 was widely commented on and republished in five foreign publications.

During his career over some seven decades, he wore many hats: editor, speechwriter, public relations spokes-man, union representative, author and, above all, outspoken advocate for social justice. Journalistic purists might object to those times when his knowledge of events and passion for justice led to activism. For instance, in the 1980s MacEoin was one of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement, which helped people from war-torn areas of Central America get to safety in the United States in defiance of U.S. immigration laws.

MacEoin was born in Curry, County Sligo, Ireland, on June 12, 1909.

Three formative events played major roles in making Gary MacEoin the man he was. The first was his ejection from a seminary at the age of 25. A native of Ireland, his curiosity, intelligence and wit seemed to destine him for the priesthood. After high school he entered the Redemptorist Order and spent 11 years in study and prayer. “Exactly three weeks before the date fixed for the ordination to the priesthood of myself and seven classmates,” he wrote in his 1986 book, Memoirs & Memories, “I was summoned by the Father Provincial … and notified verbally that I was not being recommended to the bishop for ordination. It was a bolt from the blue.” When MacEoin replied that he would be willing to undergo a period of trial or testing, he was quickly disillusioned. “The provincial was not talking about a delay,” he wrote. “The decision was final, permanent and irrevocable.” Though he appealed and re-appealed the judgment during the next few years, he was never given any reason for his dismissal. Looking back at that trauma some 60 years later, MacEoin recalled in his memoir that he refused to be overwhelmed. “All I can say is that I was determined to prove to myself and others that, in spite of what had happened, I was somebody.”

Indeed, in short order he became somebody, earning university degrees in London and Dublin, including a Ph.D. in Spanish and a law degree, while gaining proficiency in five languages, English, French, Spanish, Latin and Irish. In 1937 he married Josephine Delaney, and they had a son, Don. His wife died in 1986.

A second formative influence was his experience as editor of a daily newspaper on Trinidad during the 1940s. He was shocked and angered by the blatant colonialism, racism and exploitation he observed on the British-controlled island. “The colonizers seemed unaware that their structures prevented the native from acquiring their expertise in administration and political decision-making,” he wrote. And he became aware that he was an integral part of the colonial system. Trinidad provided him with two lifelong legacies -- a determination to expose social oppression wherever he found it and a special affection for Hispanic people.

He moved to New York and held a string of positions for some 15 years, sometimes two or three at the same time -- editor of a Spanish language newspaper, editor of an agricultural magazine highly influential in Latin America, public relations representative for the Colombia coffee industry, U.S representative for the International Catholic Press Club and writer for the Catholic Encyclopedia and magazines such as Sign, Ave Maria and Catholic World.

In 1964 he and Josephine took a 14-month trip around the world, and during their stay in Rome he experienced a third formative event -- the Second Vatican Council. “The council proved catalytic for me,” he wrote in Memoirs & Memories. “It brought together not only 2,000 bishops but many of the world’s finest minds ” including “several hundred of the world’s most informed journalists. It was a unique graduate course in religion and human relations. Only then did I become aware of the extent to which we Catholics had become trapped in a legalistic system that determined our thinking and actions. … What was refreshing and renewing was to hear prestigious theologians insist that not only was the Code of Canon Law something totally distinct from the rule of faith, but the survival of the church as a meaningful reality involved the replacement of legalism by the freedom Jesus had proclaimed as the birthright of his followers.”

Following the council, MacEoin and 50 other journalists incorporated the Information and Documentation Service, an international network of affiliates reporting on implementation of the council’s decrees. For six years he commuted between the United States and Rome, observing in his articles and reports how the curia was skillfully preventing any possible shift of power from itself to the Synod of Bishops. In the United States he became a director of the National Association of the Laity and the National Association for Pastoral Renewal and noted how these and other reformist organizations “disappeared as quickly as they had come … after a brief moment of popularity and influence.”

While he was in Rome in 1966 an unnamed friend told MacEoin he had obtained a copy of the report of the Papal Birth Control Commission, which the Vatican had intended to keep secret. MacEoin convinced his source to give him the document, which MacEoin turned over to NCR so it could be “thoroughly analyzed by people with both technical and journalistic skills who would prepare press releases to go with the text.” It was then published simultaneously by NCR and Le Monde in Paris, creating worldwide speculation about a possible relaxation of the church’s ban on contraception.

He moved to Arizona in the 1970s where in the 1980s he became a prime organizer of the sanctuary movement to assist refugees from Mexico and Central America. Also in the 1980s he organized a series of tours for Americans who wanted a firsthand glimpse of what was occurring in Latin America. Despite his advanced years in the 1990s, MacEoin continued a breakneck schedule of travel, reporting and writing.

In a talk given in 1998 titled “From Horse and Buggy to Mouse and Modem: Personal Reflections on Time, Culture and the Media,” MacEoin recalled that one of his earliest memories occurred during August 1914. “I was sitting on a wall in a small village on Killala Bay in the West of Ireland. About four o’clock in the afternoon, the stage coach drawn by four horses galloped up the street and halted at Hopkin’s Hotel about a hundred yards from where I was sitting. Five or six people jumped out and ran up the street shouting: ‘War is declared.’ ”

News of the beginning of World War I had taken 28 hours to travel from London to his tiny village in Ireland.

“Today, by contrast, everything happens simultaneously everywhere. Every innovation is immediately replicated across the globe. If I go to the movies in Matto Grosso in Amazonia, Donald Duck is jabbering at me in Portuguese. McDonald’s arches have welcomed me on the Champs Elysées in Paris, in Moscow, in Beijing.”

MacEoin thought the computer a marvel and used it to harvest information that would have been unavailable to him in earlier eras. He loved having the world at his fingertips, but he also understood the timeless threats to humankind.

How can we celebrate this life?

There's an old Irish custom called a "month's mind" where family and friends gather about a month after someone's death to celebrate that life.

Wherever you are in the world, on Sunday, Aug. 3, set aside some time to remember MacEoin either alone or in small groups.

To tell us what you did or the memories you shared of MacEoin by sending NCR an e-mail at

“When I was sitting on that wall in a little village on Killala Bay in 1914,” he wrote, “the world we knew was a small place, well defined, seemingly well ordered. Today we know so much more. People are so overwhelmed with information that they cannot process it. They are insecure, uncertain of what tomorrow may bring.”

Yet however much he understood about human suffering and the sometimes grinding march of history, he was consistently a source of hope.

In the conclusion of his memoir he wrote, “I have experienced many reinterpretations of reality, shed progressively beliefs and viewpoints that I came to believe mistaken. But I am not bitter about the process. I could not have reached the present point on the road without traveling the miles and leagues that separate me from my starting point. … It is a process that never ends … and so I am grateful to all the people and experiences that taught me whatever I know.”

Robert McClory is a frequent NCR contributor. He lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: