Profiles in Faith: John Leary

Every Friday, we’ll take a look at Catholics who made a difference living out their discipleship, placing their talents at service to the common good in unique and interesting ways.


Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Children of God.

John Leary was 24 years old when he died in 1982. He suffered from an undiagnosed arrhythmia in his heart and went into cardiac arrest while running. But for all the shortness of his life, it was a life aglow with the Spirit, completely dedicated to love of God and neighbor. At his funeral, attended by hundreds, Fr. McCarthy called Leary a “magna cum laude Harvard graduate and summa cum laude Catholic Worker.” Leary was a young man totally dedicated to seeking holiness in his life and putting his faith into practice. Everything he did was in relationship to Jesus Christ and informed by the proclamation of the Gospel.


He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, but his identity in faith went through his cultural upbringing and all the way to the foot of the cross, which he saw as the ultimate expression of non-violence in the face of evil. He was inspired by Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton to integrate sacrament, prayer, discipline and tradition with action inspired by the Gospel.

He attended Daily Mass without fail and received frequent communion; he often went to Confession for he knew that refusing to name an evil act as such, led to calling an evil good; his prayer life was rich, praying the rosary daily, and indeed he told friends that while he ran, a daily discipline, he prayed the Jesus prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner—and so likely died with the name of Jesus upon his lips. He relentlessly studied and meditated on the faith through reading of scripture and the writings of the saints.

From this good soil of the sacraments and prayer, his life bore much fruit in living out his faith. He evangelized with gentle argument, he co-founded and worked at an institute dedicated to pursuing peace through Christian practice, lived and served at a Catholic Worker home, and practice intentional non-violent protest of abortion, military draft, and capital punishment. He was once beat up by workers for protesting at a weapons plant, and when his friends begged him to consider his safety he said “survival is not the ultimate priority” but the Gospel.

But for all his prayer, and toiling in the vineyard, and suffering, his joy and hope, modesty and wisdom were evident in his manner, his speech, and in his eyes: “You could look into those eyes and see all the way, right to heaven—the goodness was so powerful and the honesty unlike anyone I’ve ever met.” Such was he described by Sister Evelyn Ronan (his Catholic Campus minister at Harvard) but I found similar sentiments expressed by many who knew him.

According to Rev. Gomes, “The difference with John was that he discovered that life had no purpose, no meaning, no direction, and no focus apart from the purpose and focus of God … He became in his short life the complete and total man for others, and those who knew him and loved him testify to the love of Christ that shone in and through him.” We may not be called to non-violent protest, or to take the homeless into our own homes, as John Leary did; but we can be inspired by this “little saint of Harvard” to a joyful life informed by the Gospel, lived for God, and to pursue all that we do for Christ, laying all our talents and works at His feet.

I first read about John Leary in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time but you can also read more about him at this ChurchPop article about his life.

Published by Catholic Campus Ministry Asheville

A ministry of the Diocese of Charlotte, serving the Catholic communities at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, Mars Hill University, Warren Wilson College, and UNC-Asheville.