Development and Peace pays tribute to one of Canada’s leading advocates for social justice | Development and Peace

Development and Peace pays tribute to one of Canada’s leading advocates for social justice

September 20, 2017
William F. Ryan, was a Jesuit priest

William F. Ryan, was a Jesuit priest, a Harvard-trained economist and one of the leading influences on the post-Vatican II church in Canada. He was founding director of several important church-based organizations including the Center of Concern in Washington D.C. and the Toronto-based Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, where he continued to serve as advisor until his death on September 8 at the Jesuit residence in Pickering, Ontario.

After 19 years of Jesuit formation, Bill joined the Catholic bishop’s new Social Affairs office as a staff person.  He authored many of the progressive statements that gave legs to the new energy created by Vatican II. Bill recalled “It was exciting working with the 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.”

It was during his time with the Social Affairs office that the bishops established the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. Bill helped to organize a key meeting in July 1966 which he said “recommended that the bishops should set up a national Catholic organization with three aims: public education on the responsibilities of Canadians to the poor, emergency aid, and aid to development projects. The group also agreed the new organization should provide a high degree of lay involvement and relate to other Churches and public programs.”  Bill was a member of the committee which then worked to implement this recommendation.

Bill was invited to attend the 1971 World Synod of Catholic Bishops as a peritus (adviser) and was justifiably proud of the Synod’s landmark statement ‘Justice in the World’ which proclaimed that Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”

In 1971, Bill was asked to set up a centre in Washington D.C. that would be a voice for global justice.  This idea had been launched at the United Nations by UN Secretary-General U Thant and Fr. Pedro Arrupe who was superior-general of the Society of Jesus. Bill used his keen eye for talent to staff the new organization and found funding from communities of women religious. He sought to make the Center of Concern a place for hospitality, collaboration, and productive dialogue and for action that would bridge the signs of the times on the world's front pages with Catholic social tradition. The Center of Concern is the U.S. representative on CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité) the international alliance of lay-led Catholic development and advocacy organizations, including Development and Peace.

Bill was elected to the General Congregation of the Jesuits which oriented the order to promote a faith that does justice. He later served as Provincial Superior for the Jesuits in English Canada before returning to the bishop’s conference (CCCB) as General Secretary. His accomplishments are too many to relate in a short article. One would need to read his biography: “Faith and Freedom: the Life and Times of Fr. Bill Ryan” or get a taste from this personal recollection:

Bill also worked with the prestigious IDRC (International Development Research Centre) on a project on religion and development. He said “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.”

Since 2007 Fr. Ryan’s main work has been accomplished through the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice, where he served as a Special Advisor until his death.  He said of the Forum “Under (long-time former Development and Peace staff member) 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.”  The Forum has been doing wonderful work on animating the recent statements of Pope Francis, including the Pope’s social and ecological concerns expressed in Laudato Si.

In his later years Fr. Ryan exuded a quiet strength that was rooted in prayer, discernment and intellectual rigour. In a statement on Fr. Ryan’s passing, the current president of the Centre for Concern, Lester Myers, said “In his graciousness, intelligence, and concern for people, Fr. Ryan exemplified Ignatian tradition and the spirit of Vatican II and prefigured for us the courageous and prophetic engagement of Pope Francis.”


Thank you to Development and Peace staff member Danny Gillis for writing this tribute.