The Little-Known Saint of Harvard: The Inspiring Life of John Leary

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Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, emmanuelcharlesmccarthy.org

One day amid the usual mess on the Web, I suddenly stumbled upon John Leary, a young man who died in 1982, a Harvard graduate and resident of Boston. He lit up my screen like a supernova some 33 light years away and moved me to the edge of tears.

This is a guy I never met, never had even heard of. And will never meet in this life.

Yet at the time the spiritual luminosity was comparable to that of a close friend in immediate proximity, not someone separated by decades from even the possibility of meeting. Obviously, the blast of light released by John Leary in his short life is still sending out a ripple effect.

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I tried to find out everything I could. He was a high-performing Harvard student, but he was also a Catholic Worker who gently opposed both abortion and war. He was once beaten up by working-class toughs who didn’t appreciate his insistence on nonviolence. John Leary was aware of all the ambiguity and went about his business without blaming people or falling into resentment. A classmate who knew him recalls that “he understood the implications of” nonviolence, even at the risk of dying: survival not being necessarily the ultimate priority.

John’s sense of mission started early: in 7th grade, he was on the environmental board of his hometown. He lived in some of the more depressed neighborhoods of Boston and welcomed the homeless. One woman remembered him as a babysitter and his patience and humor in dealing with kids.

Then, in the late summer of 1982, he dropped dead while jogging, from an undiagnosed arrhythmia. He was just 24.

Hundreds attended his funeral, ranging from academics to homeless people. There were Catholics, Buddhists, Quakers, and people of no religion.

Perhaps most remarkable was the photo: indeed this is what first grabbed my attention. Wearing the kind of plaid shirt that is again popular, he has just the beginning of a smile. There’s friendliness, conviction and compassion – with a bit of mischief.

At moments when I am dejected by what’s going on in the world, I find myself gazing at his photo. It is unusual for goodness to be so visible, except perhaps in wild nature. More often, in human beings at any rate, beauty can be involved in glamour and manipulation. Usually human goodness requires us to look carefully: “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” John was apparently an exception.

A nun described his gaze this way: “When I looked into John’s eyes I could see all the way to Heaven.”

John Leary’s story reminded me in many ways of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, even to the very end. Both died untimely at the age of 24 and had surprisingly massive funerals.

At the core of John Leary’s activism, was a total commitment to following Christ. His favorite prayers were the Abandonment Prayer of Charles de Foucauld and the Jesus Prayer, which he was likely saying when he died. Thus he combined Western and Eastern Christian traditions.

Sometimes I wonder if today’s environment makes someone like John Leary no longer possible. His kind of impulse tends to get channeled into an acceptable “brand” with well-polished language of human rights, endorsements by famous people, and gala events. Perhaps the greatest casualty of political correctness is actually not traditional culture per se, but the kind of idealistic and spiritually centered yearning for a better world that John represents.

Nevertheless, there are people who remind me of John Leary. I even continue to meet with them for coffee or retreats occasionally. One of them is Eastern Orthodox, having lived in a Catholic Worker-like place in Toronto. The house had as its aim the bringing of people together to help rebuild their lives and especially their capacity to form relationships, and the simple things of doing what it takes to make a household. A couple of close friends of mine, who don’t quite fit into the normal workaday world do this kind of thing too. They hang out with street people just the way they would their family.

These folks put me to shame, but I am happy to be shamed by their example.

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Gavin Miller
Gavin C. Miller is a field biologist with experience in ecological restoration and native plant propagation, and is also sometimes a freelance writer. He lives in Toronto.