Interview by Mike Stechshulte
You were born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Maryland with a lot of brothers and sisters. What was it like growing up in the Ryan household?
I was raised in a traditional Catholic family of eight children, and my parents, Inez and Philip, passed on their very strong faith. My father was a professor at Georgetown Law School, and he later become a partner in a law firm. The job switch helped him deal with the tuitions that mount up when you send eight children to Catholic schools!
What about your childhood helped form your young faith life?
We went to Mass every Sunday, and after Mass was over, my father would often kneel and pray for a while longer as other people were leaving. It was his way of getting quiet time with the Lord, which wasn’t easy to do at home with all the kids.
I attended Holy Redeemer Grade School in Kensington, Md., for all eight years and graduated in 1966. We used the Baltimore Catechism, which though not perfect was extremely helpful. In addition to Masses at school, the May procession every year made a real impact on me. We would kneel on the blacktop in a semicircle surrounding the statue of Mary, singing Marian songs and then crowning her. Later in life, when I was struggling, I would return to that statue and ask for Mary’s intercession.
I’ve read you had a profound re-conversion experience while in college. Tell me about it.
Despite my very solid Catholic background, I let myself become too immersed in the secular culture of the 1960s and early ’70s and lived a sort of “good-time Charlie” college life. But deep down I was yearning for meaning and truth, and for a confirmation of my faith. Many of my friends were not going to church, and I was hanging on to my faith by my fingernails.
One day, I went out to celebrate the Fourth of July with friends. I remember looking up at the beautiful fireworks but feeling empty inside. I found myself pondering questions such as, “Where am I going with my life?” and “Isn’t life supposed to have more meaning?” My interior emptiness was a stark contrast to the magnificent fireworks. Driving home, I kept struggling with these questions, and I remember getting on my knees in my room and praying a prayer that I had never prayed or even heard before: “Lord Jesus Christ, please invade me with your Holy Spirit.” I prayed it over and over again. And then I went to bed.
What happened the next day?
When I got home from work that next day, I called a young lady I wanted to ask out, but before I could, she asked me if I wanted to go to a prayer meeting. Now, my intentions were good, but I didn’t exactly have a prayer meeting in mind! But I agreed.
It turned out to be a charismatic meeting, and when we got there, I experienced the conflicting interior experiences that are a sign of spiritual warfare. As I watched people raise their hands and say things like “Praise the Lord,” the thought came, “This is weird stuff.” Yet I also found myself attracted to the vibrant, deep, joyful relationship with the Lord that these folks obviously had. The words of the songs seemed directed to me personally, and when people started to speak and then sing to the Lord in tongues, though I didn’t understand, I found it very beautiful. In fact, I felt my whole spirit lift up, as though I was floating on their voices. I had always thought of God as “out there,” but that night, He seemed very close. It was then that I remembered that I had prayed that heartfelt prayer the night before. It was an amazing experience, for I simply couldn’t deny that the Lord had answered my prayer in an obvious and dramatic way.
Of course, at the time, I thought it was going to be a package deal and that I’d get the girl, too, but He had other ideas!
What drew you to religious life, and specifically to the Jesuits in 1977?
I went to Loyola College in Baltimore, and I also worked at Georgetown Prep High School in the D.C. area as a residence hall prefect, so that gave me connections with the Jesuits. My father, in fact, had been in the Jesuits for a while. He was never ordained, and he made the very wise discernment to leave. Of course, I have a vested interest in that!
Jesuits are involved in many different apostolic fields—retreat work, education, the missions, parishes, and so forth—and that attracted me. After I entered, I came to appreciate the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, the centrality of discernment, and the meaning of the motto, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “All things for the greater glory of God.” This approach to life enables us to become all we can be, and despite my many stumbles, I try to do that and help others do the same.
Obviously, philosophy and theology are subjects you greatly enjoy, while the average person might think of that stuff as “just for the academics.” How do philosophy and theology touch people on an everyday basis?
According to St. Anselm, theology is “faith seeking understanding.” So, if someone has faith and really believes that Jesus is Lord—believes that God became man and took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary; believes that Jesus taught us and confirmed his teaching through his compassion and miracles, especially his Passion, Death, and Resurrection; believes that he established a Church and offers his Holy Spirit so that we can live with a view to sharing his resurrection life forever in his completed kingdom—if someone really believes all of that, then it seems to me he ought to try to understand it as best he can.
Theologians do sometimes speculate on matters that seem irrelevant to people, but when they realize that theology is in fact concerned with crucially important questions such as “What’s going to happen to me when I die?” they become very interested.
Would it be fair to say that’s the driving force behind your ministry?
I’d say so. Pastoral ministry is all about helping Jesus save souls. He wants us to be happy with him forever in the kingdom he’s preparing, but we can’t take salvation for granted. He calls each of us to cooperate, which includes the call to evangelize—the call, as Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter puts it, to “unleash the Gospel.”
Before coming to Detroit, you taught at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and several other places and served for a time as executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs. What did you do in that role?
I helped provide staff support for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, chaired by Archbishop Vigneron. The committee deals with various issues regarding faith and morals that come before them. For example, helping immigrants involves cooperating with the government in certain ways, and sometimes the government requires things that are morally questionable. I analyzed various issues and offered theological advice to help the committee judge whether the cooperation in question was compatible with moral norms and an authentic proclamation of the Gospel.
How did you end up at Sacred Heart?
After my service to the bishops’ conference ended in 2016, Archbishop Vigneron invited me.
I had always respected Sacred Heart because I was aware of the remarkable faculty here. We have a collection of very fine scholars, and it’s an entirely faithful place. I was also pleased to be with sound, theologically sophisticated people who share my background in the Charismatic Renewal. They and other faculty members are ready and willing to proclaim the Gospel and promote the mission of the seminary.
In addition to teaching, you also serve as spiritual director of undergraduate seminarians. What advice do you give them about their discernment?
Helping with the spiritual formation of our college seminarians is a very important part of my job. One aspect of that work is helping them recognize how God is communicating with them. As a Jesuit, I’m naturally interested in Ignatian spirituality, and I have found St. Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits particularly helpful in equipping these young men to recognize when a thought or idea is from the Lord or from someone else.
I also try to help them learn from the mistakes I made when I was a Jesuit novice. I had the idea that I needed to know from day one whether I was going to be a priest, and that assumption caused me a great deal of anxiety. But now I’m able to tell the men, “If you sincerely sought to do God’s will in entering, you can be confident that you are where He wants you to be. And if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the program of formation, God will make it clear to you at his chosen time whether he is calling you to be priest.”