US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Eileen Egan: The peace activist often cropped out

Often overshadowed by her more famous contemporaries, Eileen Egan was on the front lines of almost every major social movement during her lifetime.

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Recently, while doing research on Servant of God Dorothy Day and her example of living out the Beatitudes, I stumbled across a different version of a historical photo I’d seen many times. It documents a meeting between Day and now-Saint Mother Teresa. The two elderly women hold hands, two kindred souls in deep conversation and communion of belief.  However, in this wider-than-typical crop there’s a woman with heavy-framed eyeglasses that cast a glint on one cheek. She wears a suit, holds a briefcase and seems to be scurrying out of the frame, cut off and in a blur. I was surprised to recognize her: Eileen Egan, close companion of both Day and Mother Teresa.

In that company, journalist and activist Egan may have been on the margins. But because of her dedication to what she once called the “shocking” Beatitudes, she was in fact on the front lines of almost every major social movement during her lifetime. A reviewer of her last book called her “one of the most remarkable Catholic women of our time,” a sentiment similar to praise given her by associate editor of Americamagazine George Anderson when he called her “one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century” upon her death in 2000. Even today, volunteers at the New York Catholic Worker, a social justice ministry founded by Day, jokingly refer to Egan as one of “the Trinity,” along with Day and Mother Teresa.

At her funeral, the celebrant remarked that “Egan often said, If only people would read and listen to the Sermon on the Mount, to the Beatitudes, how much better this world would be.”

Lately I’ve found myself wondering how much better this country would be—in a time when isolationism and nationalism threaten to trap immigrants and refugees behind talk of border walls—if we still had easy access to Egan’s insightful commentary about nonviolence. Perhaps Catholic lawmakers, along with those of other faiths, would not seriously propose more guns as the solution to gun violence and mass school shootings.

Though the common nature of school shootings like that in Parkland, Florida or Newtown, Connecticut would have been an unimaginable horror in her lifetime, there were plenty of other worldwide violent threats—conventional and nuclear war, ethnic cleansing, rape as a sanctioned military tactic, and government-backed sanctions that starve war-scourged refugees—in play then and now.  As associate editor of Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper, editor of the Peace journal of Pax Christi, and author or coauthor of 13 books, Egan articulated passionately and eloquently that Catholics were obligated to stand against all such violence. She called the stance of the church that some wars were justified as “an alien graft on the gospel of Jesus.” As a member of the Catholic peace movement, she was relentless in her criticism of the hierarchy for not being consistent in their interpretation of the Beatitudes.

That her example of living out “blessed are the peacemakers” is now lost to history might be attributed to Egan’s ability to also live out “blessed are the poor in spirit.” As she once wrote “All the other Beatitudes depend on this first one. It is only by being transformed in spirit, by recognizing both our total inadequacy and the almighty power of God, that we can find the door to his kingdom.” . . . 

Read the rest of this essay or explore the rest of the pieces in our Unexpected Women series.

Photo by Bill Barrett, courtesy of Jim Forest on Flickr

Published: 
Thursday, May 3, 2018