Fr. William F. Ryan, SJ, Founding Director of the Center of Concern and Former Provincial, Dies
September 25, 2017 — Father William F. Ryan, SJ, died peacefully on September 8, 2017, at René Goupil House in Pickering, Ontario. He was 92 and a Jesuit for 73 years. Fr. Ryan, known for his work in social justice, was founding director of the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C.; provincial for the Jesuits in English Canada; and general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Fr. Ryan was born in Renfrew, Ontario, on April 2, 1925, the second son of William Ryan and Helena Donig. After high school, he entered the Society at Guelph, Ontario, on Aug. 14, 1944. Fr. Ryan journeyed to the United States in 1951 to study economics with a focus on labor relations at Saint Louis University. Two years later he began regency for one year at St. Paul’s High School in Winnipeg. In 1954, he was sent to Europe for theology; first to Heythrop College near Oxford and in 1955 to the Jesuit theologate in Louvain, Belgium. He was ordained at St. Michael’s College Church in Brussels on Aug. 15, 1957.
In 1959, Fr. Ryan was back in the United States, this time at Harvard University to pursue a doctorate in economics. In 1964, Fr. Ryan began his long ministry in the service of faith and justice. He was appointed co-director of the Social Action Department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and a visiting lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa. In those years, he also served as special advisor to the International Development Research Centre.
In 1970, he moved to Washington, D.C., to begin a long tenure as the first director at the Center of Concern. During this time, he served as the executive secretary for the Interfaith Coalition. He was named provincial of the Upper Canada Province in 1978. Fr. Ryan was elected delegate to GC 32 in 1974 and took part as Provincial in GC 33 in 1983.
After his provincialate, Fr. Ryan was appointed in 1984 as General Secretary to the CCCB. Then in 1991, he was director of the Jesuit Project on Ethics & Politics and Chair of Catholic Social Teaching at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. He was also involved in the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice. Later he gave the same energy to the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, both in Ottawa and Toronto. A return of cancer, which he had successfully combated for several decades, appeared early in 2017, and he was assigned to the Jesuit Infirmary at Pickering just after Easter.
Every community and apostolate in Canada has the book on Fr. Ryan's life, "Faith and Freedom," published in 2002. The scope of his involvement in justice issues makes for staggering reading.
Fr. Ryan had a great love for the outdoors and was a regular hiker and walker. As a result, it was natural for Fr. Ryan in 2014 in response to Pope Francis’ call for us to be “protectors” of the world, to write with Janet Somerville, Anne-Marie Jackson and Anne O’Brien, "Living With Limits, Living Well!" at the request of the CCCB. With the same team, Fr. Ryan then collaborated on "The Joy of the Gospel," a resource for discussion and reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium." Fr. Ryan was grateful and delighted when Pope Francis gave to the world in 2015 his ecological and environmental encyclical "Laudato Si’," and so he and his team produced "On Care for Our Common Home: a dialogue guide for Laudato Si’."
During the last weeks of his life, Fr. Ryan welcomed a steady flow of visitors, mainly from Canada and the United States. He also loved to receive the constant visits of his Jesuit brothers, both young and old. Quite lucid, he was buoyed by these visits and was not eager to terminate them. And of course, as long as his eyes permitted, he kept on reading and commenting on the news of the day.