Fr. Bill Ryan Catholic Register file photo

Fr. Bill Ryan put words into real action

  • September 12, 2017

Jesuit Fr. Bill Ryan was never going to settle for a small, quiet, unobtrusive, private faith. For the Harvard-educated economist any notion that God was real, that God intends justice, must be met with real, concrete and public action.

As founding director of the Centre for Concern in Washington, D.C., Fr. Ryan challenged the war policies of the Nixon administration. As executive secretary of Canada’s inter-church coalitions, Fr. Ryan demanded Canadians take responsibility for injustice in Latin America and South Africa. As general secretary to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), Fr. Ryan challenged the economic logic of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s austerity measures.

As director of the Jesuit Project on Ethics and Politics, Fr. Ryan insisted that political decisions have a moral dimension. As co-ordinator of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, he brought Catholic social teaching to bear on every aspect of a globalizing economy.

Fr. Ryan died following months of palliative care at the Jesuit infirmary in Pickering, Ont., Sept. 8. He was 92 years old.

“Someone once said, ‘Nothing is more practical than falling in love with God, and falling in love quite completely.’ This is the falling in love and the practicality that Bill radiated throughout his life,” Jesuit provincial superior for English Canada Fr. Peter Bisson said. “He has left the Jesuits and the Church in Canada much to build on.”

There was never a moment Fr. Ryan wasn’t fully and completely engaged in the issues of his day. No one took more seriously St. Ignatius’ insistence that the Company of Jesus was to consist of contemplatives in action.

Ordained in 1957 and taking his final vows in 1961, Fr. Ryan first put his PhD in economics to work as co-director of the CCCB social action department in 1964. By 1966 he was both working for the CCCB and teaching economics at Carleton University.

In 1971 he came to the attention of Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was then the secretary general of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They gave Fr. Ryan the job of setting up and running the Centre for Concern, a think tank that brought Catholic thinking to bear on U.S. politics.

Forty-five years later, Fr. Ryan’s tenure is still remembered,said centre president Lester Myers.

“Fr. Ryan was a Jesuit’s Jesuit,” Myers wrote in an email. “In his graciousness, intelligence and concern for people, Fr. Ryan exemplified Ignatian tradition and the spirit of Vatican II, and prefigured for us the courageous engagement of Pope Francis.”

Fr. Ryan’s experience with American politicians made him a coveted commodity among faith-based organizations trying to influence public policy. In 1975 he was back in Canada as provincial superior of the Jesuits in English Canada, but at the same time herding together the disparate gaggle of inter-church coalition.

In 1984 the Canadian bishops tapped Fr. Ryan to be the CCCB general secretary. 

In the 1990s he advised the International Development Research Centre, the crown corporation that is a key element of how Canada directs its foreign aid. In the 2000s he was putting Jesuit convictions into action as co-ordinator of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice.

“If love isn’t true, it’s of no use,” Ryan told the Canadian Catholic News service in 2010. “The truth is we need a revolution. The system we have is not going to get us through.”

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