Gary MacEoin died last month at the age of ninetyfour. He was that rare journalist who combined the breadth of an Irish scholar (he was a lawyer and lifelong student of theology, and held a doctorate in modern languages) with the tenacity of a street fighter. Over fifty years ago, he wrote succinct, judicious reviews for Commonweal and went on to play a major role in reporting on the Vatican and on the church in Latin America.
At one point, he became—involuntarily—a minor celebrity at a major event in the history of the Latin American church: the 1979 meeting of the Latin America n Bishops Conference (CELAM) in Puebla, Mexico. The meeting amounted to a referendum on the progressive direction taken by many Latin American bishops following the Second Vatican Council. After the counci1, at a meeting in Medellín, Colombia, the bishops had, for the first time, condemned widespread injustice and called for serious social change. Many of them began programs to promote reform. These were welcomed by the poor but were often labeled "subversive" by others. Some bishops began having second thoughts, and were hoping to roll back the Medellin advances at Puebla. As the meeting approached, a confrontation seemed inevitable.
Meanwhile, Gary had edited a special issue of Cross Currents, titled "Puebla: Moment of Decision for the Latin American Church." Largely sympathetic to the post-Medellín church, it apparently drew the ire of CELAM officials, because when Gary showed up at Puebla to cover the meeting, he was denied credentials.
At the daily news briefings, reporters protested Gary's exclusion. After a week of this, CELAM sent in a new priest, a friendly Capuchin friar, to preside at the briefings. While young, he was already taking on tough assignments. His name was Sean O'Malley—the same Sean O'Malley who, earlier this summer, was named archbishop of Boston.
You'd think that, to help his chances, Gary (sixty-nine at the time) would have played the part of the dignified elder statesman in his daily visits to the seminary where the conference was being held. But no, he showed up each day wearing...a powder-blue jump suit. He looked more like a grizzled senior mechanic for Aer Lingus than the author who'd posed in jacket and tie when one of his books won the Overseas Press Club Award. Maybe getting press credentials wasn't a big deal to him: he had great contacts and ample access to the bishops outside the seminary. Besides, Gary explained, the beauty of the jump suit was that he could wash it out every night and count on its being dry by the morning. The CELAM officials kept him outside, but lost the bigger battle: their roll back plan was rejected, and the church's post-Medellín turn ratified.
After I moved to El Salvador in the early 1980s, I would see Gary during his frequent trips to the region. In 2000, the National Catholic Reporter sent him to cover the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Gary was over ninety and his health was beginning to fail; on most days I had to push him in a wheelchair.
NCR editor Tom Fox insisted that Gary stay at a five-star hotel, with all its resources and comforts. It was strange seeing him there. On earlier trips, consistent with his frugal lifestyle, he'd slept on friends' couches or at the lower-rung guesthouses frequented by freelance reporters. He loved telling about the time a kind red spirit, Paolo Freire, came from Brazil to lecture at Fordham, where Gary taught. The university had placed Freire in a Manhattan hotel, but after a night, he showed up at the dean's office and announced that he'd changed hotels. "We're so sorry it wasn't nice enough," he was told. No, Freire explained, the problem was that the hotel was too nice, and he had moved to a cheaper one.
While Gary was frugal, he was ever generous, his bottle of Scotch included. I witnessed his particular hospitality in 1992, when I was in Santo Domingo, covering another CELAM conference. There wasn't much work for freelancers at that time, and by the end of the first week I found my finances getting tight. Gary was covering the meeting for NCR. Knowing very well that freelancers sometimes fall on hard times, Gary acted. I don't know how carefully Tom Fox reviewed Gary's expense reports for that conference, but after the first week, Gary's hotel bill was for two people, and his restaurant bill doubled.
The last time I spoke with Gary—by phone, four days before his death—I told him he'd have to pick up the pace in his exercise program (he was recovering from a stroke), to insure he'd be at the top of his form for next year's CELAM meeting. I was looking forward to being behind his wheelchair again. I knew how sick he was, but the e-mail reports from his son, Don, gave reason to hope that Gary might just pull off another comeback. "He's really hit his stride again," I thought, when Don wrote that Gary, less than enamored of his physical therapists, had started calling them "physical terrorists." That was the Gary I knew. May he rest in peace.