Keyword: Jesuit, Genre: Autobiography – What Being A Jesuit Means to Me . . . Bill Ryan, SJ



On September 8, 2017. Fr. Bill Ryan, SJ passed away.  Three years ago, Fr. Ryan wrote an article for igNation sharing his “exciting journey” on his 70th anniversary as a Jesuit.

Today, igNation reposts Bill’s “exciting journey”.  


In May 2014, igNation launched a series exploring the Jesuit identity as it is expressed in works of fiction: “Keyword: Jesuit, Genre: Fiction”.  This was followed by the series “Keyword: Jesuit, Genre: Biography”.  In these two series we hear what others think about what it means to be a Jesuit – in fiction and in biography

This new series – “Keyword: Jesuit, Genre: Autobiography” – will explore what it means to be a Jesuit today – as told in their own words by Canadian Jesuits.  The articles – written for igNation –are as different in expression and format as the men who wrote them.

                     Today’s  posting is by Bill Ryan, SJ

“What has it meant to me to be a Jesuit for 70 years? I am in my 90th year, celebrating my 70th year as a Jesuit and have been asked to share some of my exciting journey.”

I was the middle child in a family of nine. My parents, although uneducated themselves, settled the family to Renfrew, Ontario, so that we would be near good schools – and the church. My mother, a convert from Luthernism, insisted that we four boys be altar boys and go to daily Mass.

My older brother Joe and I spent our summers working in the lumber camps and sawmills in the Gatineau region of Quebec where my father was foreman. There I made my first friends among French Canadians, spent long hours alone coming to appreciate the beauty of nature.

At age 16, I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. That work-out earned me the nickname “Rock Ryan” in football at Renfrew Collegiate. Surprisingly, it was the principal, a confirmed atheist, who first suggested to me that I become a Jesuit.Source:

The Bishop of Pembroke offered me a full scholarship to attend St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa, hoping that I would become a diocesan priest. In the spring of 1944, I felt I had, finally, to decide on this priest thing. Though not much given to prayer, I made a three-day retreat which confirmed for me that I should forget about being a priest.

But the Lord was not satisfied. A week later, I heard Jim Connor, a former student from Campion College, Regina: “If any of you want to be a priest, be a Jesuit. I know that they are good priests.” I knew instantly and forever that I had to be a Jesuit even though I had never met one. It was the greatest and most powerful grace of my life.

Source:    I was interviewed by four Jesuits at Loyola College, Montreal, and a week later, accepted into the novitiate at Guelph. It was only then that I told my family and friends. In Guelph, I was caught up enthusiastically with prayer in the Long Retreat , even wondered if I should be a Trappist. I asked to do my philosophy in Montreal in French but ended up in Toronto. There I ran into trouble.

It had never occurred to me that Jesuit obedience meant accepting all rules as unalterable. The Rector did not appreciate my bent for wanting to change things. Nor did my professors appreciate my lack of admiration for neo-classical Thomist philosophy. Their question: “Why can’t you just be like the other young Jesuits?”

The tension exhausted me. But after spending three winter weeks in Guelph (helping the Brothers clean out the barn where the cattle were lodged), my energies were renewed by the Provincial’s promise to send me to our new mission in Darjeeling – only to be dashed by his consultors who insisted that I study philosophy.

When I told him I would die if he put me in a seminary teaching philosophy, he asked, “What would you like to study?” After a few moments, I said, “Economics!” He replied: “Then study economics.” My future life in the Jesuits was

In August 1951, I arrived at St. Louis University where highly qualified Jesuits were working on economics and social justice. Here I found a lifelong friend in Phil Land, sj, who directed my M.A. thesis on the history and ideology of Catholic trade unions in Quebec. It was well received and the university offered me a PhD if I would spend another year expanding on it.

But my interests had already turned to Christian social movements and political parties in Europe. After a year of teaching at St. Paul’s College, Winnipeg, I went to Heythrop College in England. A year later, I transferred to College St. Albert in Louvain, Belgium, where I met Jesuits from 24 countries.

I did my tertianship at Paray-le-Monial, France, spending several months preaching missions at Canadian and U.S. military bases.

However, the 33-day retreat was central and rewarding for me. We were among the first Jesuits to make this retreat under the personal direction of the Tertian Master without having to listen to lengthy presentations. I spent my spare time with wedges and a sledge hammer taking out the stump of a huge tree that had dominated the garden.

Source: romero-center.orgTowards the end of that year, my provincial asked me to do a doctorate in economics, preferably in Canada. However, Jesuit economists urged me to go to Harvard. I was welcomed at Harvard not because of high marks – but because I had already studied successfully in six countries.

There I was stretched to my limits and beyond. I even considered dropping two courses when, with two A’s on mid-term exams and my record from St. Louis University, my course work was reduced to one year.

I appreciated the professors, especially John Kenneth Galbraith, Barbara Ward and Alexander Gershenkron, a senior Russian economic historian. He was fascinated with the role of the Catholic church in economic development and became my thesis director.

My professors wanted me to explore the influence of Catholic, especially Jesuit, missions on economic development in the poor world. I did this by exploring the experience of the Church in Quebec. My findings showed that in the period prior to World War I the Church had, on balance, a positive influence on economic development in Quebec.

My thesis was published by Les Presses de l’Université Laval, titled The Clergy and Economic Growth in Quebec (1896-1914).

Here the challenges of my 19 years of Jesuit formation end and my exciting 50 years of Jesuit apostolate begins. After a year teaching at Loyola College, Montreal, the Canadian bishops asked Father Arrupe for my services to lead their Social Action Department.

It was exciting working with bishops returning from Vatican II and with a competent, bilingual team of priests and lay men and women aching to recreate the Church in Canada. We worked ecumenically and with labour unions and others in organizing a national conference on Medicare and an international conference on world poverty.

Source: centerofconcernThis work ended with a request from Father Arrupe to teach economics at the Gregorian University in Rome. I agreed with some hesitation and was happy when, instead, he sent me to Washington. Bishop Joseph Bernadin, General Secretary of the U.S. bishops conference, had suggested my involvement in exploring the creation of an international justice and peace centre.

The eight years with what became the Center of Concern were the most difficult but most enjoyable years of my Jesuit apostolate. The Center, launched in May 1971 at the UN by Father Arrupe and U Thant, its General Secretary, proved a politically complex venture.

After a year of intense and inconclusive discussions on the relationship of the bishops and the Jesuits to the Center, I found myself the founding Director of an independent organization with a small Board under the chairmanship of Irving Friedman, Chief Economist of the World Bank.

We gathered a small, gifted, fun-loving team with strong academic credentials, including Jesuits Peter Henriot and Bill Callahan, Sister Betty Carroll and Joe Holland.

I was elected to represent my Jesuit province at the 32nd Congregation, 1974-75. It produced our famous Decree 4 declaring that for Jesuits faith and justice were inseparable. I was able to play a small leadership role with a few other Jesuits in getting the Congregation to take three days before beginning its work in Commissions to discern the significance of what we called ‘the priority of priorities,’ i.e., that all our apostolates be marked by concern for a faith that does justice.Bill Ryan,Sj and Very Rev. Father Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, Superior General of the Jesuits. Source: John Pungente, SJ

After eight years as Director of the Center of Concern, Father Arrupe first asked me to stay longer, but soon appointed me provincial of the Canadian Jesuits, as requested by my province.

On taking office on the feast of St. Ignatius, July 31, 1978, I asked the Lord to give me the grace to love each Jesuit genuinely. I believe my prayer was answered, with the precious help of Bill Addley, my assistant and friend.

My priority was setting up a discernment process, “Our Way of Proceeding in the 80s.” Among the initiatives proposed were launching the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, the Anishinabe Spiritual Center for Indigenous people, a Farm Community for disabled persons and a Jesuit magazine, Compass. The plan was enthusiastically approved by Father Arrupe and put into practice.

Source: One day in June 1984, I received two intriguing invitations: the first to become General Secretary for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB); the second to join the CBC team with Peter Mansbridge to cover Pope John Paul II’s 12-day visit to Canada.

It proved a stimulating experience to participate with an expert news team for 62 hours of unscripted TV. I did have one advantage – I had, along with a couple bishops, vetted all the pope’s talks in Rome a month earlier.

Before undertaking the work of General Secretary, I made a 30-day Ignatian retreat in Quebec City. I needed spiritual nourishment and I wanted to prepare myself not to lose my spiritual freedom in the delicate task of working closely with all the bishops, both French and English.

While at the CCCB, I set up a Task Force of nine key bishops to rethink and update the conference with the help of professional consultors. Although the bishops in Plenary Assembly accepted almost all the Task Force proposals, there was minimal follow-up due to a change of leadership, increasing shortage of funds and the Vatican’s diminishment of the role of national bishops conferences.

In 1990, my provincial asked me to stay in Ottawa to influence the federal government on issues of ethics and social justice. Over three years, 63 parliamentarians from all parties met with me in small groups but after the Quebec referendum, our discussions became politicized and I discontinued them.

Working with senior civil servants, over wine and Thai food in late evenings for three-hour sessions on ethical issues proved enjoyable and much more fruitful.

Following that work, I accepted a contract with the prestigious IDRC (International Development Research Centre) to be Special Advisor on their project on religion and development. It proved to be a demanding, challenging three years in which I travelled the world – at one time visiting 28 countries in four months. It resulted in my helping to produce three significant studies.

In 2000, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After reflection I decided to ignore my doctor’s advice and follow a regime of building up my immune system. Amazingly, after eight months the tumor had disappeared.

Anne-Marie Jackson, Director of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice and Bill Ryan,SJ. . Source: In the meantime, a team of three Jesuits, Jack Costello, Jim Profit and I, had kept the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice alive. By 2007, our Jesuit Social and International Commission came up with a new model to replace it with the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, where I am Special Advisor.

Under Director Anne-Marie Jackson, our task is to go deeper than information and analysis in reading the signs of the times. We work with small groups of seven or eight to share honestly – not debate – social justice and environmental issues.

We have also worked with partners to develop tools for study and action, the two most recent  to be published in English and French by the CCCB Publishing Service.Source:

And thus 51 years of intense Jesuit apostolic life continues. I have been blessed gratefully at each stage with good friends and talented Jesuits and lay partners. I believe I have been mostly able to keep my spiritual freedom – strongly committed but open to the new and the different.

I enjoyed my annual retreats for spiritual renewal and occasions to feast on the beauty of nature. My constant prayer is that I be given the gift to continue to experience Christ crucified and Risen in myself, in others, in nature, and in the poor in whatever form I meet them – with humility, generosity, freedom, gratitude and love. This what it has meant for me to be a Jesuit for 70 years!


Many of the themes referred to here are elaborated in Faith and Freedom The Life and Times of Bill Ryan, SJ by Bob Chodos and Jamie Swift. Novalis. 2002.


William Ryan, SJ, is a special advisor to the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, Toronto.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 13:33h, 15 September Reply

    Thank you Bill! Pray for us

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