St. James’s Father Ryan Is a Spirited Voice for Change

By Laura Dannen May 18, 2012 Published in the June 2012 issue of Seattle Met

It started out like any other Sunday at St. James Cathedral: Churchgoers streamed up First Hill, navigating the steep stone steps into the century-old building. In came the elderly women in their pearls, the young couples in jeans, the Filipino families with toddlers in tow, who all settled solemnly into unforgiving wooden chairs and pews arranged in the shape of a cross. Even the date on the Catholic calendar was unremarkable: the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. No longer Christmas and not yet Lent. Just an ordinary Sunday in February.

All eyes looked to the raised marble altar at the center of the cathedral, where Father Michael G. Ryan would bless the hosts and wine as priests had done long before him. He would lead the faithful in prayer in English with a hint of Latin, a language that’s not dead yet after all. And he would give a sermon—a homily—following the Gospel reading, just like he always did. But this time, this homily, this Mass, would be different.

Father Ryan strode to the podium with a spring in his step that belies his 71 years. He’s not a giant of a man—let’s just say he’d probably play guard on the basketball court—but he’s a leader in the community. As head of the city’s largest Catholic church for the past 24 years, Father Ryan has seen his parish triple in size in so-called unchurched Seattle and led an extensive restoration of the cathedral in 1994. One of the most striking renovations was the addition of a new circular skylight in the central dome—an oculus dei, or “eye of God”—that filters beams of natural light down into the church. Father Ryan took his spot at the podium in that fading daylight, under the watchful eye, and addressed the congregation.

“Gospel stories like today’s can be so familiar that we’re apt to tune them out—not purposefully, of course, but almost automatically,” he said. “If we do, we lose out on a lot because there’s always something new, even surprising, in the Gospels if we take a closer look.”

The day’s Gospel told the story of Jesus healing a leper with the touch of a hand, a simple but powerful act that was both a miracle and an outrage. Since leprosy was considered punishment for sins—and highly contagious—the afflicted were supposed to avoid society and vice versa. Both Jesus and the leper were lawbreakers, said Father Ryan; Jesus had prioritized the person over the law.

“Lepers are still coming to Jesus,” Father Ryan continued. “I’m thinking, too, of those whom society or even the Church have treated like lepers by marginalizing them, or stigmatizing them, misunderstanding them, or even treating them as outcasts.”

Then came the kicker: “Think, for instance, of gay and lesbian people who struggle so hard for acceptance and understanding, struggle to be respected and loved for who they are. Or think of people who are in marriages that the Church does not recognize. … In responding to them, the Church can do no better than to look to the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of today’s Gospel, and to find there the one for whom there are no outcasts whatever: only fellow humans in need of love, human warmth, healing, acceptance.”

The congregation then did something that was new to me in my three decades of churchgoing: It applauded. Long and heartily. For on the same day that Father Ryan was calling on the Church to extend an olive branch to the gay and lesbian community, a letter from the Most Reverend J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, ran in the cathedral’s weekly bulletin condemning new and proposed laws that posed an “unprecedented threat” to religious liberty. Among them were a federal health-insurance mandate to cover contraception, and Washington State’s marriage equality bill, which the governor signed into law the following day.

Weeks later, the archdiocese ran another letter, in church bulletins across the city, asking the flock to support a petition drive for Referendum 74. The initiative would keep the state’s new marriage equality law from going into effect June 7 and instead put it to a statewide vote in November. To get on the ballot, supporters would need to gather 120,577 signatures by June 6; if they failed to 
do so, Washington would become the seventh state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. “Marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of our society,” wrote the archbishop. “Treating different things differently is not unjust discrimination.”

Beg to differ? In an email to the St. James parish, Father Ryan replied: “While the Archbishop has given his support to the effort, he has wisely left it up to each pastor to decide whether to allow the collection of signatures in his own parish. After discussing the matter with the members of the Cathedral’s pastoral ministry, I have decided that we will not participate.… Doing so would, I believe, prove hurtful and divisive in our community.” St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill and St. Mary’s in the Central District quickly followed suit.

As of May 7, the Preserve Marriage Washington coalition had tallied 66,109 signatures for Referendum 74. Just 54,468 to go.

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On a day in April, Father Ryan relaxed in an armchair in his cathedral office, occasionally putting his foot up on the coffee table, then thinking better of it and putting it back down. Sporting his weekday duds—a sweater, button-down shirt, and trousers—he looked more like 
an English professor than a Catholic priest. He was quick to laugh and seemed calm, collected. Peaceful in a way that a man who’s on speaking terms with God might be. Though he finds himself at the intersection of politics and religion—and not in lockstep with the Vatican—he proceeds with the confidence that he’s in sync with his congregation.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a response on this scale,” he said of the feedback he’s received following his Referendum 74 announcement. Some 300 emails, another 30 snail-mail letters, and about “95, 96, 97 percent have been supportive.”

Still, “I’ve had some angry responses,” Father Ryan noted, “and I take those seriously. I don’t want to divide the community.” One parishioner said she would leave St. James because of it. “I felt badly about that,” he said. But in the end, “I think we read the community right and did the right thing. I have no regrets.”

“I’m loyal. But that doesn’t mean I can’t step out and ask questions and raise issues.” 

This wasn’t the first time Father Ryan has spoken out against a dictate in the Catholic Church. In late 2009, as the Vatican was finalizing a new, more literal and controversial translation of the Roman Missal—the ritual text of the Mass used around the world—the St. James pastor launched the website that called for a pilot program to road test the translations, rather than force phrases like “consubstantial with the Father” into the mouths of Catholics. More than 23,000 people signed the website’s online petition in favor of delaying; others said he was being disloyal, trying to stand down the Church.

“I’m loyal, I love being a priest, I love my parishioners, I love the Church,” he told me. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t step out and ask questions and raise issues. The church has to have room for that; it always has.” At a time when the Catholic Church has taken to the trenches—battling clerical sex scandals, contraception, gay marriage, and as recently as April, the “radical feminism” of nuns who want to reform the church from within—it’s easy to forget that progress does happen. That there was an era when Catholics didn’t enter Protestant churches and the entire Mass was held in Latin. To hear Father Ryan speak his conscience, even if it doesn’t adhere to party lines, almost seems like a throwback.

Many Catholics, from the practicing to the lapsed, were shaped in some way by the church of their childhood, and Father Ryan is no different. Born a stone’s throw from St. James Cathedral in Columbus Hospital, formerly on the corner of Boren and Madison, he grew up in the 1940s in an Irish Catholic family “where questions weren’t asked much. We just accepted what we were given and loved the church and practiced our faith.” He attended St. Anne’s grade school on Queen Anne and St. Edward Seminary prep for high school, drawn to the fold by a sort-of “hero worship” of priests he’d known. But he truly came of age as a priest during his graduate studies in Rome in the 1960s, at the height of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII—another hero of Father Ryan’s—had gathered bishops and clergy from around the world to discuss the modern-day Catholic Church and how to “shake off the imperial dust.”

“I was catapulted into this world where there were huge questions being asked and advancements being made, and changes—even the notion of changing the liturgy from Latin to modern languages,” said Father Ryan. He spent his days attending lectures by notable theologians like Yves Congar, who spoke radically of interfaith cooperation, and his nights sitting around the dinner table debating the latest changes proposed during the day’s Vatican II session. “It was a fantastic time to be there and study theology. The winds of change were blowing, and it was refreshing and renewing and exciting.” Hard to believe that was 50 years ago. St. James Cathedral will celebrate the legacy of Vatican II throughout 2012 with a 
lecture series, capped off by the dedication of a shrine to the Vatican II reformer himself, Blessed Pope John XXIII.

When he returned to Washington from Rome, Father Ryan was assigned to St. Patrick’s parish in Tacoma, where he was taken under the wing of Rev. Thomas Pitsch. Father Pitsch was no wallflower: He took an active role in the political and social life of Tacoma, even served on the Human Rights Commission, and he encouraged Ryan to do the same. “It was a great eye-opener for me that the church could have a voice,” said Father Ryan, “not to tell people what to do, but to engage in a dialogue about where we’re going as a society, and what are the values, and what do we have to contribute.”

Father Ryan gestured toward his desk, a stately mahogany piece that looks difficult to move. “That’s his desk right there; he left it to me.” Perched on top, almost buried under stacks of papers and books, was a small wooden carving of Jesus as a shepherd with a lamb curled up at his feet. For Pitsch, he said, “People always came first. He knew the importance of laws and regulations, but he also knew that people always came first, and he instilled that deeply in me.

“I have a role as a teacher in the community and I try to carry that out faithfully,” Father Ryan said. “I think I need to speak on behalf of the people, and give them a voice…

“Even though I feel like we’re in some stormy, murky waters right now,” he added, glancing at his desk. “But I’m hopeful.”

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