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Rev. Bill Ryan helped usher in new era for Jesuits

Father Bill Ryan, a Jesuit priest, centre, is shown with fellow Jesuits Father Trevor Scott, left, and Father William Mbugua.

Moussa Faddoul/fotoreflection.com

In late 1974 and early 1975, the world's Jesuits gathered in Rome in an extraordinary General Congregation to define a new direction for the worldwide Catholic order. The atmosphere was tense.

The leader of the order, Superior General Pedro Arrupe, favoured making the promotion of justice an "indispensable" part of the Jesuit mission, but some more conservative Jesuits balked. Across town, Pope Paul VI was concerned that the Jesuits' commitment to justice might lead them to stray from their priestly vocation.

One of Father Arrupe's strongest supporters was a Canadian Jesuit with a growing international reputation. Rev. Bill Ryan was known as a vocal proponent of social justice, but also as a skilled institutional player with a knack for sensing the energy in a room, bringing it around to his side.

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Early in the congregation, there had been 50 delegates to whom Father Ryan "felt like giving a swift kick," he later recalled, but by the time of the vote, his "enemies list" had been reduced to one. The decree on justice was approved in a near-unanimous vote on March 4, 1975. In the end, Father Ryan and his allies prevailed.

The story goes that Father Ryan once remarked to Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, a fellow delegate, that he hadn't spoken much at the gathering.

"No," replied the future Superior General of the Society of Jesus. "But you spoke enough for all of us."

Father Bill Ryan died of bone cancer at the Jesuit infirmary in Pickering, Ont., on Sept. 8 at the age of 92.

The General Congregation marked the beginning of a new era for the Jesuits, one in which Father Ryan would play a significant role. At the time, he was director of the Center of Concern, an influential liberal Catholic think tank in Washington. Returning to Canada, he headed the Jesuits' English Canadian province and later became general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

Through all these assignments and beyond, he remained a leading voice for the vision of a faith informed by social justice. Up to the mid-1980s, he rode a wave of reform in the Catholic Church. Later on, he had to struggle against a more conservative tide. But he always managed to interpret even apparently discouraging developments with enthusiastic optimism.

Canadian businessman and international civil servant Maurice Strong described Father Ryan as "one of the most remarkable men I have ever known." Writing in 2002, he noted Father Ryan's "deep faith and abiding commitment to his vocation as a Jesuit priest that is not only fully compatible with his passion for social justice, but is its primary source and driver."

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William Francis Ryan was born May 2, 1925, in Renfrew, Ont. His father, also named Bill Ryan, was a logging foreman working away from home for long stretches. His mother, Lena, raised nine children. Bill was the middle child.

His mother, a convert from Lutheranism, decided that young Bill had to attend mass every day. So that's what he did. As a teenager he worked summers in his father's logging camps in the Gatineau Valley.

At college in Ottawa in 1944, Bill Ryan made a sudden decision to enter the Jesuit notiviate in Guelph, Ont. Still, as he recalled, "It never occurred to me that Jesuit obedience meant accepting all rules as unalterable."

The Guelph novitiate was the beginning of an extensive education that lasted 20 years, spanned five countries and culminated in an economics PhD from Harvard. For the rest of his life he carried the label "Harvard-educated economist."

Father Ryan's thesis, later a book, dealt with the role of the clergy in Quebec's economic development. Using pre-1914 parish documents, his evidence challenged the conventional wisdom that the church had uniformly opposed industrialization and "held Quebec back."

Father Ryan joined the social action department of the Canadian Catholic Conference (later the CCCB) in 1964, just as the Second Vatican Council was in full swing and church reform was taking shape.

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He penned pro-worker Labour Day messages and in 1966 he helped to organize an important pro-medicare conference in Ottawa. Lester Pearson's Liberals were wavering and the conference was part of the movement that stiffened their resolve.

Working with another reform-minded church leader, future Anglican Primate Ted Scott, Father Ryan helped launch Canada's politically engaged ecumenical movement. Said Father Ryan's friend and fellow reformer Dennis Murphy, "Before the Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church was not particularly famous for its ecumenical endeavours."

In 1970, Father Ryan moved on to start the Center of Concern, whose ambitious agenda included disarmament, environmental degradation, conspicuous consumption and prison reform. He and his Jesuit colleagues had assumed the money for the think tank would come from the Catholic hierarchy. But instead, essential funding came from American nuns, no longer content to be part of the ecclesiastical wallpaper.

Taking intellectual inspiration from Latin American liberation theology, Father Ryan and his team had to navigate his church's thorny contradictions. There was always the risk that teachings on "family life" (birth control, abortion and women's ordination) would trump concerns about social justice.

Former priest Joe Holland, colleague at the Center of Concern, recalled Father Ryan's "uncanny" ability: "He had a sixth sense of how to move, when. Some leaders just have that gift. It's a spiritual gift almost like witchcraft, that he was given, that he was born with."

When Father Ryan moved to Toronto to head the English Canadian Jesuits in 1978, the core of his mandate was to make Father Arrupe's social-justice vision a reality on the ground in English Canada. He did this primarily by introducing a series of fresh initiatives.

Most prominent of these was the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, led initially by two young Jesuits, Jim Webb and Michael Czerny. The Centre tackled a variety of social-justice issues and was a prominent voice in Canada's Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s.

Others included the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre in Espanola, Ont.; the award-winning Jesuit magazine Compass; the Jesuit Communication Project, a Toronto-based media literacy centre; and the Jesuit Farm Community in Guelph, a radical experiment in communal living with marginalized people.

Rev. Doug McCarthy, the guiding spirit behind the Farm Community, remembered it as "an exciting time to be a young Jesuit."

As English Canada's head Jesuit, Father Ryan deftly handled a serious institutional crisis. When Father Arrupe suffered a debilitating stroke in 1981 and could no longer carry out his duties, Pope John Paul II challenged the Jesuits' cherished autonomy by appointing his own delegate to head the order until a new Jesuit leader could be chosen.

Father Ryan obtained a supportive letter from the strong-minded Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Emmett Carter, with whom he maintained good personal relations despite disagreements on many issues. Cardinal Carter's support served him well in the complex negotiations that followed. The crisis was not resolved until 1983, when a General Congregation chose Father Kolvenbach, a supporter of social justice but more diplomatic in his style than Father Arrupe, as the new Superior General.

That year, Father Ryan also negotiated a truce between the CCCB's Social Affairs Commission (successor to the Social Action Department) which had vigorously denounced neo-liberal economic policies, in its statement Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, and Cardinal Carter, whose friends in Toronto's corporate elite were offended by the statement.

When Father Ryan returned to the CCCB in 1984 as general secretary, he found the atmosphere had changed since his tenure at the social action department two decades earlier. Many bishops felt that the Social Affairs Commission, and especially its radical lead staffer, Tony Clarke, were no longer representative of Canada's 100-plus bishops.

Even the most prominent radical among the bishops, Remi De Roo of Victoria, agreed with the need to "rein in" Mr. Clarke. Doing so without giving up on the CCCB's commitment to social justice was the challenge facing Father Ryan.

He chose to undertake a broader restructuring of the CCCB, which included greater episcopal control of the Social Affairs Commission. The bishops overwhelmingly accepted the restructuring, but not everyone was happy, with Mr. Clarke a particularly vocal dissident.

After retiring from the CCCB in 1990, Father Ryan continued to speak and write on Catholic social teaching, international development, the environment and other issues until shortly before his death.

During much of this period, he saw elements of his legacy eroded by a more conservative, more fearful, less expansive church. Within the Jesuit order, which was faced with declining financial and human resources and an expensive sexual-abuse settlement, the initiatives that Father Ryan had undertaken were terminated or drastically scaled back in the late 1990s.

In 2016, the CCCB pulled out of KAIROS, an ecumenical coalition promoting economic justice and human rights, signalling a retreat from the bishops' commitment to inter-church co-operation that Father Ryan had nurtured back in the 1960s.

But with the advent of Pope Francis in 2013, there were also positive developments in Father Ryan's last years, especially on environmental issues, long one of his deepest concerns. In his work with activist Anne-Marie Jackson at the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, he questioned the very idea of economic growth, a notion that would have been heresy at Harvard in the 1960s. However his "degrowth" perspective anticipated by a year Pope Francis's landmark environmental encyclical Laudato Si'.

Father Ryan is leaves his sisters Theresa Moore and Helen Hanniman, his brother-in-law Mervin Hanniman and many nephews and nieces, as well as what he called his "Jesuit family."

Video: Quebec monks bring back melon first invented by forefather (The Canadian Press)
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