Maione a giant of Church in Canada

Romeo Maione is shown here addressing the Social Justice Institute in Edmonton in 1981. The long-time Catholic activist died in Ottawa May 12 at age 90.


Romeo Maione is shown here addressing the Social Justice Institute in Edmonton in 1981. The long-time Catholic activist died in Ottawa May 12 at age 90.

June 1, 2015

Romeo Maione was one of Canada's foremost left-leaning Catholic laymen and social activists, an indefatigable lecturer and writer, street philosopher and teacher.

A high school dropout at 15, he rose to hobnob with popes and governors general, 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 died May 12 in Ottawa after a series of heart attacks. He was 90. He is survived by his wife Betty, four children and 11 grandchildren.

Born in Montreal, the eldest of seven children of Italian immigrants, Maione went on to serve in the Canadian bishops' social action department and as the first executive director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

As a youth, he worked with the Canadian National Railway, RCA Victor and then on an assembly line with the Ford Motor Company inserting valves into engine blocks.

In that latter job he often dreamt about valves in his sleep. This experience gave him a sense of the dehumanizing aspects of factory work in the early 1940s and led to a lifetime of seeking social justice in all its forms.

The second most important conversion experience of his early life was his discovery at age 23 of the Young Christian Workers (YCW).

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 was an international social movement endorsed by Pope Pius XI as "a perfect form of Catholic Action."

The formation and social thrust given through the YCW and the Young Christian Students organizations was to have an important influence on the lives of Maione's fellow Quebecers who entered political life: Pierre Trudeau, Jean Pelletier, Jean Marchand, Jeanne Sauvé and Claude Ryan.

The focus of the YCW was to train young workers in the "observe, judge and act" method of reflecting on their everyday life experiences in the light of Scripture and to work to change the worlds of work, school and family.

Maione began attending union meetings and soon became the chief shop steward of a 2,000-member union. That role led him to understand that his life would be dedicated to serving others and seeking social justice for the disadvantaged.

In 1950 he met Betty Welling, a fellow Montrealer, who was working as a staff member at Friendship House launched by Catherine Doherty in Harlem, New York. Romeo and Betty married in London in 1956.

In 1954, he became Canadian president of the YCW. Two years later, Canada's bishops asked him to go to Rome to help organize an international congress of Catholic laity. The 1957 rally attracted 32,000 young workers.

In 1962, he became assistant director of the social action department of the Catholic bishops' conference. Two years later he joined the Canadian Labour Congress as assistant director of international affairs.

During his time at the CLC, he was elected president of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY).


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.

"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 given 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. The handwriting is on the wall. No youth, no future Church."

In 1965 Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed Maione a member of a royal commission investigating working conditions in Canada's post office. The commission's report led to the agreement that ended Canada's first postal strike.

In 1968 the bishops appointed him the first president of CCODP. He decided to locate the headquarters in Montreal, assuring the bilingual and bicultural nature of this new Catholic lay organization.

He once spoke of his concern for justice in the developing world by telling of the time he watched a funeral procession for a young child in Latin America.


"In this 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 take the crumbs away 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 1973 he returned to the Canadian Labour Congress again as director of international affairs. Three years later he joined the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Ottawa as director of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) charged with giving matching grants to NGOs with development projects in Third World countries.


Throughout his career he delivered hundreds of talks around the world on social justice as well as writing innumerable articles.

After retiring in 1985, he continued to campaign for social justice through organizations such as Seniors on Guard for Medicare and Make Room for Peace as well as by participating in several protests on Parliament Hill.

Maione also served as a delegate of the Canadian bishops to the world Synod of Bishops on the laity in 1987.

In the last years of his life, Maione refused to go gently into the good night. He 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.