Romeo Maione, one of Canada’s foremost left-leaning Catholic laymen, social activist and critic, indefatigable lecturer and writer, street philosopher and teacher, died in Ottawa May 12 at the age of 90. A high school dropout at 15, he rose to hobnob with popes and governor generals, received an honorary university doctorate in social sciences, worked for the poor and disadvantaged in underdeveloped countries, and sought to reform the social face of Catholicism.
Maione was born April 5, 1925, in Montreal to a poor Italian immigrant couple. His early high school dropout gave little indication of his subsequent life of leadership and honours in the private sector, government, union movement, and the Catholic Church. In later life, fluent in the English, French and Italian languages, and with a powerful, dynamic and forceful personality, his career embraced a staggering variety of diverse challenges that all started from the humble beginnings of working in a Montreal factory in 1940.
He once told me his life’s work was shaped and orientated in these early teen age years by manual labour. As the eldest of seven children, and at the end of the depression, he felt a responsibility to get a job, first with the railway (CNR), then RCA Victor, and finally inserting valves into engine blocks as they rolled by at a Ford Motor Company assembly line in the USA. He said that in this latter job he often dreamt and had nightmares about valves in his sleep. This experience gave him a sense of the demeaning and dehumanizing aspects of factory work in the early 1940s and led to a lifetime of seeking social justice in all its forms.
However, the second most important conversion experience of his early life was his discovery in 1948 at 23 years of age, of a lay Catholic movement in Montreal, the Young Christian Workers (YCW). At that time he once wrote, “I was not practising my Catholic faith then except occasionally going to mass to please my mother. So at the first YCW meeting I kept rather quiet because I was afraid a priest at the meeting would ask me if I was going to church.”
The YCW at that point was an international social movement started in Belgium in 1925 and endorsed by Pope Pius XI as “a perfect form of Catholic action.” The formation and social thrust given through the Young Christian Workers and the Young Christian Students was to have an important influence on the lives of Maione’s fellow Quebeckers entering political life: Pierre Trudeau, Jean Pelletier, Jean Marchand, Jeanne Sauve and Claude Ryan.
The focus of the YCW was to train young working people by means of the “observe, judge and act” method of reflecting on their everyday life experiences in the light of Christian Scripture and to change for good the realities of the world of work, school, and family through daily actions. One of Romeo’s (Rom to his friends) first actions was to attend his own union meetings. In a few months’ time he was asked to take over as chief shop steward of a 2,000-worker union. This task made him a father confessor for all the workers with grievances toward management. In addition it gave him an understanding that his life would be one of serving others and seeking after social justice for the weak, the underdog, and the disadvantaged.
His rags to riches life pilgrimage from high school dropout to the end of an illustrious and fruitful life is like reading pages out of Believe it or Not. In 1950 at 25 years of age he took a six-week training course with the young Christian Workers in London, England, and spent four years organizing the movement in Canada, particularly Toronto and Montreal. In 1954 he became the Canadian president of the YCW.
That same year he met Betty Welling, a fellow Montrealer, who was working as a staff member at Friendship House in Harlem, New York. A Russian baroness, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, had founded this New York house to seek interracial justice for black people and serve Harlem’s poor. Her cause for sainthood in the Catholic Church is now underway in Canada. Rom and Betty married in London in 1956 and they had four children and 11 grandchildren.
The Canadian Catholic bishops in 1956 asked Maione to go to Rome to help organize an International Congress of the Catholic laity. While in Rome in 1957 he was one of the chief organizers of a YCW rally that brought 32,000 young workers to that city. His continued activity in the YCW resulted in his election in 1958 as the first international president of the YCW, stationed at the world headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
In 1959 as YCW president he had a remarkable personal meeting with Pope John XXIII who had initiated the Second Vatican Council. Maione told me that upon entering into the room to meet the pope, there was only one chair, obviously for the pope. Whereupon Pope John at the age of 70 crossed the room, found an additional chair, and began carrying the chair to their meeting. Rom immediately rushed over to help but the pope insisted on finishing the job. For his own attempt to assist the pope, Maione quipped that he was given a papal honour as a Knight Commander of St Gregory that year, including a sword and cocked hat.
He also pointed out that the pope was at heart a real peasant, who came from a farm in Northern Italy. He said to Romeo, “Maione is an Italian name. Do you speak Italian?” “My parents are Italian and I was born in Canada so I speak a dialect,” replied Maione. The pope then asked him to speak in his dialect and he would try to identify his family area in Italy. After saying a few words Pope John replied: “You come from Campo Basso.” Maione replied: “No I come from about 150 kilometers away.” The pope then replied: “Well in these things even a pope is not infallible but I was close.”
Returning to Canada Maione was appointed in 1962 to become assistant director of the Social Action Department of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Ottawa. Two years later he joined the Canadian Labour Congress as assistant director of international affairs which resulted in extensive worldwide travel. During his time at the CLC he was elected president of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY), an international youth association linked to several United Nations agencies.
His love and concern for young people never left him. Shortly before his death he talked to me about the problem of young people leaving the Catholic Church in droves. He commented: “the amazing thing about the exodus of young people is that they are not leaving the churches in hostility or anger. They are not, like Luther, nailing a message on the door. They are leaving quietly from apathy, boredom and neglect. Parochial and anachronistic institutions today hold no attraction for young people. Everyone from bishops to clergy to parents should be worried. If the CEO of Coca Cola was handed a report that 70 per cent of young people had give up drinking Coke, he would spring into action with a massive program to research ‘why’ the loss and ‘what’ must be done about it. No expense would be spared to solve the problem. The irony is that the exodus of young people from the churches rarely produces a ripple of concern these days. The agenda of the church seems to be bogged down in institutional problems. This game leaves everyone concerned at the periphery of reality. The handwriting is on the wall. No youth, no future church.”
The next challenge in his life in 1965 was an appointment by Prime Minister Lester Pearson to become a union representative and working member on the Royal Commission to investigate working conditions in the Post Office of Canada. This study, The Montpetit Report, was part of the agreement that ended Canada’s first postal strike.
In 1967 Maione became an executive of the United Steelworkers of Canada in Toronto and in 1968 was named by the Catholic bishops of Canada to become the first president of the new Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) aimed at giving economic assistance to Third World countries. He decided to locate the headquarters in Montreal, assuring the bilingual and bicultural nature of this new Catholic lay organization.
And in 1971 the high school dropout was given an honorary doctor of social sciences degree by the University of Ottawa, under the patronage of the wife of the Governor General, Pauline Vanier, a close friend of the Maiones. That same year he was asked to be a Canadian representative to the synod of international Catholic bishops meeting in Rome studying the topic, Justice in the World.
He once commented on his concern for justice in the Third World with the following story: “Recently I was in Latin America. I watched a funeral of a little child pass by. In the particular country 300 young infants die out of 1,000 births. The mother, like all mothers of her age, was saying: ‘It’s the will of God. What can you do?’ I could not accept this. I thought to myself: No, it’s not the will of God, rather it is the will of the corrupt government in power in this country who spend millions of dollars on arms and the crumbs off the military table, and take it way from the poor. That child died because she didn’t get 10 cents of vaccine to avoid an early death. The infant mortality death rate is high in Third World countries because we haven’t lived up to the gospel directive of Jesus to share with those who are the weakest and poorest of our world. In that split second at the funeral procession I inherited the world with all of its agony and sinfulness.”
Throughout his career he delivered hundreds of talks around the world on the subject of social justice in all its forms as well as writing innumerable articles. He was a columnist with the Prairie Messenger, and his talks and writings are archived with the University of Ottawa.
In speaking on peace issues he once wrote: “Hatred, revenge, retaliation and violence are not viable options in today’s world. Violence begets violence. Thankfully there is now a groundswell of resistance to war, a yearning for nuclear disarmament, and an increasing urgency for just and peaceful solutions in world affairs. We must work to solve the problems of the world, in ways like dialogue and negotiation that do not resort to war. The spirituality of Jesus reveals him not as a political revolutionary but as a moral innovator who urged “love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus was turning the world upside down, but perhaps in fact he was turning it right side up.”
In 1987 he received an invitation to participate as a Canadian delegate to a synod On the Laity called by Pope John Paul II in Rome. With his dominant personality and strong convictions regarding the role of the Catholic laity in the world, Maione played a key role at this synod of bishops gathered from around the world. However, a longtime friend recalls Rom reporting from Rome at this time that the Roman Curia at the Vatican were planning to manipulate the bishops, as they had also done after the Second Vatican Council, by slowing down the renewal underway in the church once the bishops returned to their home countries.
In the last years of his life Maione took to his computer to continue his lifetime fight to seek justice for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and to plead for continual renewal and reform in Catholicism.
Maione is survived by his wife Betty, his children Alfred, Martin, Cathy, John, and 11 grandchildren. His funeral was May 19 at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Ottawa.