Gillgannon, American priest who spent three decades in Bolivia as Vatican II advocate, dies
Prof. Michael Gillgannon, Missionary Priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and leading scholar of Latin America, died June 19. He was 88 years old.
For more than 30 years, Gillgannon wrote for NCR from Bolivia in columns criticizing American foreign policy and supporting church reform efforts in the region. He uniquely combined his pastoral experience, an understanding of history and international affairs.
“He lived for his ministry,” the father said. Pat Rush, priest and former Vicar General of Kansas City-St. Diocese of Joseph. “He was totally absorbed in the social gospel as he saw it.” Rush described Gillgannon as “a very gentle man”.
“I can’t imagine him dealing with dictators in Latin America. He always wanted to be at peace with people,” Rush told NCR.
Pr. Chuck Tobin, another priest from Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, described Gillgannon as having “a prophetic view of gospel values that were often ignored either by individual church communities or by nation states”.
“Mike, indeed, lived through Luke 4,” Tobin said. “He brought good news to the poor and the blind sight and thereby, I mean opening the eyes of the nation on injustices and the needs of oppressed.”
Dominican Sr. Barbara Reid, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, told the story of meeting Gillgannon in the early 2000s, when the priest came to hear her lecture on a feminist interpretation of Scripture. . She remembers him asking her if she knew anyone who could give a similar presentation in Spanish. Reid had taught Spanish for six years. So she agreed and ended up traveling to La Paz to speak on several occasions.
“I learned so much from him,” Reid told NCR, adding, “He helped shape my research.”
Gillgannon was born in Kansas City, the youngest of nine children, four of whom became priests or members of religious orders. He was ordained in 1958. Like many other priests of his generation, he was strongly influenced by the Second Vatican Council, which took place in the mid-1960s and triggered major changes in the world and in particular in Latin American churches, as many have opted for what they have called “the preferential option for the poor”.
The renewal of the American church was also in the air in the late 1960s. In 1966, Gillgannon sat on the advisory committee of the American episcopal conference for the post-Vatican II reorganization of the Catholic University Ministry in the country. He became the National Secretary for Catholic Campus Ministry, helping to redesign and rewrite campus ministry programs.
In 1974, he moved to La Paz, Bolivia, to become a missionary. He has served as a pastor, episcopal vicar and national chaplain for the Bolivian campus ministry. He wrote once that he thought he would simply end a five-year stint in missionary work, but he did not realize how “fascinated and involved” he would become “with struggles that changed daily life and the Catholic Church “. He remained there nearly 40 years, returning to Kansas City in 2012 to minister to the Spanish-speaking community and continue his lectures on Catholic social ethics and economic development.
For his work in Bolivia, Gillgannon received two honorary doctorates. In 2000, he received the title of Doctor of Sacred Theology from the South Florida Center For Theological Studies in Miami. In 2004, he received the Doctor of Ministry degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Gillgannon was a scholar. He devoured and analyzed books. He posts when he can. On return trips to the United States between 1974 and 2012, he consulted with members of the Latin American office of the American bishops.
His goal, he explained, was to provide ethical and religious information from his experiences. Although the years and circumstances have changed, his message has remained largely coherent: American economic and social policies exploit the poor in Latin America.
He was quick to criticize the American Catholic hierarchy, which he believed rarely preached the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He abstract his advice to American church leaders in a 2018 blog he posted on his website:
Bishops and priests, Get out of your ghetto. Learn why you live well in a wealthy and comfortable nation that you take for granted, as do your followers. Study, preach and teach Gaudium and Spes, Pacem in terris, Populorum progressio, [and the documents of] Medellin and Puebla. And please do not say that the economy and the policy of American international relations are too complicated for an ethical discussion or a popular preaching. Your ignorance will only confirm those who say your moral authority is undermined by your selectivity.
Live the poverty, personal and ecclesiastical, which you must now preach to a debauched nation. There is no vocation problem in the United States. There is simply no reason to choose the priesthood or the religious life where comfort and conformity are the norm. Where is the challenge? Where is the idealism? Where is the sacrifice?
In 2018, Gillgannon published a reflection on his life as a missionary, titled Father Miguel. He said he had written the book to inspire interest in Latin America and encourage people to ask critical ethical questions and to reflect on social justice.
Throughout his life and ministry, Gillgannon maintained hope that information was vital and that Catholic social teachings had the ingredients needed to form good consciences. He felt compelled to provide the necessary information, based on his missionary experiences, in the belief that American Catholics could influence and change the direction of American foreign policy. It was a big request.
A few weeks before he died, I visited him in a hospital room in Kansas City. His health was declining. He was both lighthearted and serious, in many ways the same Gillgannon. He spoke and I mostly listened. He denounced US foreign policy as it continues to affect the poor in Latin America. These poor people were never abstractions for Gillgannon. I said to myself that he would carry the weight of his worries until his last breaths, his mission never completely accomplished, so great is the weight of his missionary encounters and the desire to remain faithful to the Gospel.
No doubt his many friends are praying that his worries and anguish will be rewarded, and that he will live in eternal peace.