Knoxville Opens Beatification Cause for Heroic Tennessee Priest
“Father Ryan was a martyr to charity and love of his fellows, and his memory should be cherished and his noble life and example imitated.”
We already have one new American saint (recall that Congress made Mother Teresa an honorary US citizen). Might we soon have another?
While it may take many years, even hundreds, yes we will if the good people at the Diocese of Knoxville’s prayers are answered.
On August 10, that see’s ordinary, Bishop Rick Sticka signed the formal paperwork opening the beatification cause of Father Patrick J. Ryan, who died in Chattanooga at age 33 while serving the sick and dying.
Born 1845 in County Tipperary, Ireland, an unscrupulous landlord and lack of opportunity forced his family’s emigration to New York. At age 21, he entered seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1866, and received ordination just three years later.
For his first assignment, he ministered to several mission churches. Then in 1872, with Chattanooga experiencing a post-Civil War boom that caused it to double in size, his bishop knew he needed a pastor who was zealous for souls and an indefatigable worker. He had known Ryan’s family back in Ireland, and he recognized the man for the job in Father.
The young, handsome, athletic Fr. Ryan did not disappoint. He enlarged his parish church, now known as the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, built a school, and ministered to the disparate population of Catholics in the city. In addition, he still had five mission churches to which to bring the sacraments. Each of these lay 30-95 miles away. That is doable enough by car and well-paved roads. In the 1870s, there were no cars and no well-paved roads. And there were rivers to traverse by barge and sometimes the roads were where you made them. Then there were the elements.
Nonetheless Father’s work ethic and zeal for souls propelled him on.
These same qualities were what led him to demonstrate the heroism for which people still remember him today.
In our time, we know about malaria and the Zika virus. We are less familiar with yellow fever, another mosquito-borne killer.
Yet nineteenth century Americans of the South and elsewhere were very well acquainted with it. It was a constant threat, serving as an active agent for the Grim Reaper. It decimated whole communities, and people lived in dread of it.
Not the people of Chattanooga, though. Their fair ville lies in something of a punchbowl, surrounded by hills. Its denizens thought this, somehow, had kept the epidemic from ever reaching it in the past. (The understanding of germs and the transmission of viruses was only just beginning to be widely understood and accepted by those in medicine.) The citizens labored under a false sense of security.
Yellow fever, however, is no respecter of city limits. All it takes is one infected person traveling from one community to another for it to introduce itself.
Since this wasn’t well understood, the town elders were passing skeptical when a doctor reported that someone within the city limits had contracted the illness.
But a vacationing priest who had been a physician before becoming a doctor of souls confirmed the diagnosis. The patient’s subsequent death and other people falling ill soon brought further confirmation.
Panic ensued. Bringing only what they needed, over 7,000 of the town’s resident lit for the hills in an attempt to get away from the contagion. Only 1,800 stayed behind.
This was mainly the sick, the medical personnel, and Chattanooga’s ministers, including Father Ryan.
The Paddy Padre was almost frenetic in his efforts to serve the poor, “going from house to house in the worst-infected section of the city to find what he could do for the sick and needy.”
Caring for those with yellow fever is something akin to Russian Roulette. Few patients exhibit the full range of symptoms. Sometimes they exhibit no symptoms at all. Full-blown signs of the disease are akin to the flu: aches, pains, fevers, chills, vomiting, fatigue, and weakness.
The true problem comes when someone goes into remission but then the symptoms start to return. This can lead to jaundice, bleeding, and the rapid failure of internal organs.
During his labors, Father contracted the illness, and within 48 hours, his immortal soul had fled its corruptible shell. People – Catholics and Protestants alike – mourned him as a fallen hero.
One can understand, then, that when his coffin was exhumed from the churchyard and taken to the newly consecrated Mt. Olivet Cemetery eight years later, his funeral cortège consisted of over 100 carriages and coursed over a mile.
These people were paying homage to his ministerial zeal. As a newspaper article said at the time, “this man of God was true and faltered not and did not fail when many ‘fled to the mountains,’ leaving the sick to die and the unburied dead to rot; because of these things our hearts honor him ... though the years have passed since his death, the people have been faithful to his memory, as he was to their welfare. ... Father Ryan was a martyr to charity and love of his fellows, and his memory should be cherished and his noble life and example imitated.”
But it wasn’t just his concern for people’s physical well-being that made people love him. What set Father apart is the quality that brought him to the attention of his bishop in the first place: zeal for souls.
The Church holds up saints, blesseds, venerables, and Servants of God for us because of the example their lives provide. Based on Father’s ministry as a priest, one would argue that he would make an excellent example for his successors in the sacerdotal arts. Sadly, this writer has known only a handful of clerics with whom this is observably the motivating animation of their priesthood. How few times do we hear calls to holiness in the confessional? How rarely do we hear of the need to avoid sin and become saints preached from the pulpit, never mind any useful advice on how to do this?
Here is a practical example.
When it was on TV, the show Desperate Housewives topped the ratings. It did not achieve that status because Catholics boycotted it en masse. No, this show that glorified adultery and lust, avarice, greed, envy, jealousy, and covetousness was watched by a fair number of the faithful. The program was very likely an occasion of sin for many viewers. And yet how many times did we hear sermons or read articles by priests exhorting or pleading with those in the pews to not patronize this program or others like it?
“Well, no one would have listened or changed even if we had.” So what? Prick the faithful’s consciences. Do so enough, and you let the air out of the balloon of self-satisfaction to which all of us cling to one degree or another. Get people thinking and struggling with these questions, with what living a life of sanctity means.
Do, one imagines, what Father Ryan did.
The Diocese of Knoxville is to be commended for bringing forth his cause for beatification. Let us pray that it is a speedy and successful one.