Romeo Maione, an immigrant kid with a grade school education who would move on to become the International President of the Young Christian Workers, the first Executive Director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (1967-1973) and the Director of the Canadian International Development Agency’s fledgling Non-Government Organizations Division, passed away on May 12th, 2015. While we at Development and Peace are saddened at the news of his passing, we celebrate the gifts that this mountain of a man passed on to our movement and to Canadians.
As our first Executive Director, Romeo proved himself the steady hand and guiding spirit that breathed life into the Bishops’ ideal of an organization that would assist the world’s poor. In the context of Vatican II and the Church in the World’s call to action, Romeo put Development and Peace in the forefront of the Canadian Church’s efforts to bring the demands of the Gospel, and the preferential option for the poor, to the attention of Canadian Catholics. At a time when the Church was searching for a new model of organization capable of translating Gospel values and the precepts of justice into public policy and consciousness, Romeo brought the notions of a movement, of militancy, of mobilization, and of a faith-based democracy steeped in a sense of service to the task of building a national, militant, bilingual and Church organization of service to the poor.
At a time when the Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, was building bridges within Christianity, Romeo was fashioning an effective coalition of Canada’s major Churches that would spawn a plethora of inter-church initiatives focused on aid, trade, human rights and development education internationally. Domestically, these same partners would focus on empowering Canada’s poor by equipping them to challenge the social and economic priorities of the government of the day and by engaging Canadians in dialogue with, and in support of, First Nations.
At a time when prestige projects and strategic interests were setting the international development agenda, Romeo defended the conviction that the poor were the only legitimate arbitrators of what constitutes good development. Where society would relegate the poor to a role of passive-but-properly-thankful recipients of northern generosity, Romeo saw the poor as the primary architects of their own development. As such, he set about creating the Asia Partnership for Human Development to share decision-making power with the poor, and in doing so acknowledged the fundamental truth that the poor are more than equal partners in the struggle to build a more just world.
Acutely sensitive to the “signs of the times,” motivated by the Gospel, inspired by his beloved Cardinal Cardijn, trained in Catholic Action and dedicated to workers and to the world, Romeo would be the first to point out that his successes were shared and that he was only able to walk as far as others would walk with him. Nevertheless, this inspired speaker and impassioned advocate for the poor, whose uncommon sense and apparently boundless energy, zeal and abiding sense of hope that surpassed even his impressive dimensions, was ultimately able to find willing allies in almost every Canadian hamlet. He was and remains a key cornerstone upon which our organization was built.
Not only does Romeo leave Development and Peace a legacy of accomplishments, more importantly, he leaves us with a personal and collective challenge. A challenge to walk further along the paths that he pioneered. To be the Church in the world, to understand underdevelopment as structural sin that demands a structured response, to see ourselves as the servants and not the saviours of the poor, to be innovative and creative, to respect and collaborate with others, and to challenge those that would distract us from our primary mission of service to the poor.