It is rare to find a priest who has expertise in both theology and economics. A Canadian Jesuit was an exception. Rev. William (Bill) Ryan died in Toronto Sept. 8 at age 92.
It is worth noting his passing and recognizing the broad influence that will be his legacy, not only in Canada but internationally.
Ryan was born in 1925 to a large Irish-German family near Ottawa. He became a Jesuit and was ordained in 1957, a few years before the Second Vatican Council which influenced much of his thinking.
He received his theology degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium and a PhD in economics from Harvard University. Early in his career, Ryan taught math, economics and geography to students at St. Paul’s College in Winnipeg.
With his academic background, he spent his life addressing the root causes of poverty and social injustice. In a tribute to Ryan, Erica Zlomislic said: “Through his extensive writing and talks, Ryan showed that the suffering of impoverished and marginalized people around the world was the result of social and economic injustice. His influential work took him from Ottawa to Washington to Rome and beyond. A comprehensive list of his many appointments, books and articles would run pages.”
Ryan served as national co-director of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB’s) Social Action Department from 1964 — 1970 in Ottawa. In 1971, he moved to Washington, DC, to become the founding director of the Centre of Concern, a Catholic think-tank that champions global social justice and peace.
He expanded his influence in 1977 when he became a founding board member of the Roncalli International Foundation, which helps improve the living conditions of the most destitute people in the developing world. He served on the board for five years.
From 1978 - 1984 Ryan served as provincial for Jesuits across English Canada. In 1984 he was named general secretary of the CCCB and served as the main CBC TV commentator during Pope John Paul ll’s visit to Canada that year.
Bishop Douglas Crosby, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, commented about Ryan, “Always a man of the church, Bill not only served as general secretary of the bishops’ conference for Canada, but was also a good friend to many bishops, visiting them even up to the time of his final illness, to discuss past experiences, current events, and fresh insights and possibilities. He was a man of dialogue and learning, he was solicitous about the well-being of his Jesuit Forum — a way of understanding and working though some of life’s more difficult problems.”
In the last 10 years of his life in Toronto Ryan used the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice to facilitate small group dialogue to build trust and friendship, encouraging people to listen to each other and share more deeply what is going on in the world, starting from their own experiences.
Referencing his background in economics, Zlomislic commented: “Ryan embraced a highly-integrated view of human life and society that was intellectually open and did not leave behind the culture and values of families, but was based on just economic relationship for individuals to corporations.”
Jesuit Father James Hug commented, “Bill Ryan was a great visionary and a talented prophetic voice for social and economic justice in the spirit of the Gospel and the Catholic social tradition. He helped to shape the vision and commitment of the Society of Jesus at a crucial time in our history following Vatican II. . . . He was a great pioneer in the global church’s commitment to justice and peace.”
Ryan was a delegate to the first Synod of Bishops called by Pope Paul VI in 1971. He was influential in shaping the statement, “Justice in the World,” which emphasized that action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear “as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”
Ryan is no longer with us, but his influence and example will continue to influence and inspire people of faith and justice.