SEATTLE — A full house at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its pastor’s ordination to the priesthood, but Father Michael Ryan preached in a pattern familiar to those drawn to the pews.
Ryan based his homily on the day’s Gospel, spoke movingly of a Christ “whose love knows no bounds” and poked fun at himself.
“Fifty years of preaching — nearly 30 of them here at St. James — that’s a lot of words!” the Catholic priest said. “Pity the poor people! Pity all of you! No wonder I feel at a loss for words today! There can’t be many words left that I haven’t already spoken. But maybe I’ll find a few if I let this be more about God’s work than mine.”
Ryan is an essential priest in this very secular — but still spiritual — city, reported Seattlepi.com http://bit.ly/2ibMNpg. “Michael G. Ryan is a giant of a priest,” Father Paul Magnano, pastor of Christ Our Hope parish, wrote recently. He grew up with Ryan at St. Anne Church and School on Queen Anne Hill.
Ryan is outwardly tireless. He will preach at five masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, celebrate three of those masses, as well as preside at a late afternoon evensong and benediction.
He has a gift for filling civic needs. When President George W. Bush sent everybody a $300 tax refund in 2001, Ryan invited generous taxpayers to pass the money on to the newly created Hunthausen Fund, named for retired Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.
The fund quietly pays first month’s rent and damage deposits to move poor families out of transitional housing into homes and apartments of their own. As Ryan’s golden anniversary gift, friends and faithful raised $155,000 for the fund and surprised him.
Seattle needs community comings-together in times of trial. The city has seen great marches between St. Mark’s Cathedral and St. James. Thousands took to the streets before Gulf War I and again before Gulf War II, and after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. The gun safety movement evolved out of the faith community.
The most recent march came after the killing of 50 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It ended with a service at St. James. In the cathedral’s quarterly journal, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray reflected on a “source of strength” he has known for almost half a century:
“I will always appreciate that when we were trying to get an LGBT civil rights bill passed, and the Archdiocese was campaigning in opposition to the bill, Father Ryan stood in front of the rectory and spoke of a Jesus for whom ‘there are no outcasts whatever: only fellow humans in need of love, human warmth, healing, acceptance.’
“On that day, Father Ryan showed the bravery and courage that has made him a voice for many.”
Ryan studied for the priesthood in Rome during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a time of “aggiornamento” (a bringing up to date) of the Church under Pope (now Saint) John XXIII. “The good pope” is honored with a statue in St. James. Ryan was ordained at St. Peter’s Basilica on December 17, 1966.
The cathedral journal shows another picture, taken in Rome on October 5, of Pope Francis with his right arm on Ryan’s shoulder. Francis has brought back to his church an emphasis on mercy, forgiveness, and renewed concern for those on the margins of life.
In any competently run church, Ryan would long ago have been archbishop of a large or challenged diocese. He has an unusual skill set, that of a thoroughly modern man and an engaging, calming old-fashioned Irish priest.
Still, in the 1980s, there was a crisis. Ryan was chancellor of the Seattle Archdiocese. The Vatican vetoed Hunthausen’s recommendation that Ryan be elevated to auxiliary bishop. It began an investigation of the progressive, pacifist archbishop. It would send in an outsider, Bishop Donald Wuerl, to assume much of the archbishop’s authority.
In words borrowed from the monastic rite of Compline, Hunthausen with Ryan’s help chose to “resist, steadfast in the faith.”
“His (Ryan’s) role was even broader than his official titles might imply: He was, in fact, the archbishop’s aide-de-camp, his confidant and chief strategist, the ghost writer mainly responsible for the dramatic interventions at the bishops’ meeting,” author Kenneth Briggs wrote in his book Holy Siege.
The Vatican ultimately backed down faced with a Western Washington flock that defended its beloved archbishop. As for prospects for the hierarchy, added Briggs, “Father Ryan’s advocacy on behalf of Archbishop Hunthausen, added to his liberal views in general, had all but eliminated him as a candidate.”
Today, Donald Wuerl is Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and has grown into a conciliatory presence in the Church.
The hierarchy’s loss was Seattle’s gain. As pastor, aided by choral director Jim Savage, Ryan restored gorgeous music to St. James, oversaw a beautiful refurbishing, and drew parishioners to the point where they now arrive from 180 Zip codes.
He has baptized kids, presided at their confirmations, counseled and married them, and come full circle to baptize their babies. On a Holy Thursday some years back, he found time to spend two hours with Patsy Bullitt Collins, former King Broadcasting chair, as she faced the last stages of cancer.
In the cathedral journal, parishioner Lita McBride wrote: “At 7 p.m., Ash Wednesday, 1992, my family was gathered around mom’s bed. In walked Fr. Ryan! When I thanked him for responding to my messages, he said, ‘I didn’t get your messages. I just wanted to come!’
“How powerfully touching that was! My precious mom went home to God the next day.”
In a tribute to Ryan, current Archbishop J. Peter Sartain reflected: “I often tell people that being the pastor of a parish is the greatest job in the world.”
It is also a job conducive to burnout, particularly given the current shortage of clergy. On Sunday, however, Ryan gave hint to how he is renewed by his calling. The Gospel introduced St. Joseph, confronted by God with something unheard of, that the child she was carrying was the work of the Holy Spirit. He kept faith in the face of history’s greatest surprise.
“Over 50 years of ministry, I have met Joseph — and I continue to meet him — in more people than I could ever count,” Ryan told his congregations. “I have met him in couples head-over-heels in love; in parents overcome with joy at the birth of a child and in parents drowning in grief at the loss of a child.
“I have met him in wide-eyed first communicants on a first-name basis with Jesus, whose visions and dreams could rival Joseph’s. I have met him in young people struggling with their faith but holding onto it even when not many of their friends do; and I’ve met him, too, in sick people who fight their illness bravely, if resignedly, and try not to ask, ‘Why me?'”
The anniversary was “not about me,” Ryan concluded, but about God and a renewing church, about a flock that refuses to behave like sheep; and “the hands, the feet, the heart, the face of Christ.”
“What a great calling!” Ryan concluded.
As happens on occasion, worshippers gave him an ovation, which Ryan — looking a bit sheepish — tried to quell.