Chattanooga judge clears way for exhumation of Fr. Ryan remains

Chancellor rules Diocese of Knoxville has authority to relocate priest’s body as part of sainthood cause                  

By Bill Brewer

A Hamilton County Chancery Court has given the Diocese of Knoxville permission to exhume the remains of Father Patrick J. Ryan from Chattanooga’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, which allows the priest’s cause for sainthood to move forward.

Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton on Jan. 14 granted a petition by the diocese for permission to have Father Ryan’s remains exhumed and returned to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where they will be entombed in a special crypt inside the basilica.

The diocese had sought the required permit to remove Father Ryan’s body from the cemetery as part of the process toward canonization. Exhumation of remains usually is done as part of causes for sainthood to establish the identity of the sainthood candidate and ascertain the condition of the candidate’s remains. If there is no evidence of corruption of the body, as has been recorded in a number of cases, the incorrupt body adds to the cause of the candidate’s sainthood.

However, there is no clear statutory procedure in Tennessee to exhume the body of a priest a diocese hopes to canonize.

Chattanooga lawyer Terrance Jones, a basilica parishioner who is assisting the church and diocese in legal matters involving the sainthood cause, explained that in nearly all probate cases, only a decedent’s next of kin can petition a court or government agency for permission to exhume remains.

But since Father Ryan, who died on Sept. 28, 1878, during the historic Chattanooga yellow fever outbreak, has no living relatives and there are no clear legal guidelines in Tennessee for requests to exhume a body for possible sainthood by unrelated individuals or religious organizations, the Hamilton County Department of Health sought legal clarification.

In a lawsuit filed Nov. 9, the Diocese of Knoxville petitioned Hamilton County Chancery Court for an order requiring the health department to issue the exhumation permit.

In an unusual move and to apparently add levity to the precedent-setting decision, Chancellor Atherton took the bench Jan. 14 and promptly played the old song “Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem Dry Bones” over the courtroom speakers before hearing the diocese’s petition.

“He said, ‘far be it from me to stop the cause for sainthood,’” said Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, who attended the hearing. “Much of what he (Chancellor Atherton) does is routine, but he was looking forward to hearing this first-of-its-kind case.”

Mr. Jones further explained that the Hamilton County Department of Health wasn’t fighting the diocese’s petition, it was only seeking answers to questions and concerns that state law didn’t address.

“The county wasn’t sure the court had authority to grant the petition,” Mr. Jones said. “It ended up being collaborative. The county just had to do some due diligence on their part in determining the court had authority.”

When he filed the exhumation petition for the Catholic Church, Mr. Jones said the Tennessee legislature did not anticipate that the Church might pursue a cause of sainthood in Tennessee when it crafted its exhumation law.

Deacon DeGaetano, who serves at the basilica and also is the vice postulator for the cause for Father Ryan, said Chancellor Atherton’s ruling puts into place an early step needed for canonization.

While there is a long way to go in the Vatican process and sainthood is not certain, the Chattanooga priest has been declared Servant of God by virtue of Bishop Richard F. Stika and the Diocese of Knoxville finding Father Ryan and his priesthood worthy of investigation for sainthood.

Bishop Stika on June 14, 2016, signed a decree officially establishing the Diocese of Knoxville as the petitioner of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan.

Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, is the episcopal delegate for the cause of sainthood.

The investigation initiated by Bishop Stika is focused on the life and death of Father Ryan. The case for Father Ryan is compelling, and officials at the Vatican have expressed encouragement. But the making of a saint isn’t easy. It involves countless hours of research and requires demanding scrutiny by those doing the vetting. Proof of a virtuous life and adherence to Catholic beliefs are just two of the requirements.

The confirmation of two miracles credited to the person considered for sainthood is mandatory. Final approval, in the form of canonization, comes from the pope.

The request for canonization, which includes asking the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints for permission to open a special tribunal, a thorough report of the candidate, and witnesses who attest to the candidate’s goodness, holiness, devotion to God, and other virtues, is the first step, at which the candidate becomes a Servant of God.

The second step involves the bishop sending the formal report and request to Rome, where it is reviewed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Nine theologians read the material and determine whether there is enough cause to pass it on to the entire Congregation. Once the Congregation determines the candidate to be virtuous and heroic in his or her faith, he or she is declared Venerable.

The third step is beatification. If the candidate was a martyr, someone who died for their faith, he or she may be beatified and named “Blessed.” Otherwise, a miracle brought about by the intercession of the saint must occur and be verified by the Congregation. Once the person is beatified and named “Blessed,” he or she can be venerated, or officially honored in his or her city, diocese, region, or religious community.

The final step is canonization. After being beatified, another miracle is required for the person to be canonized and officially declared a saint. Once again, the miracle must have occurred as a result of the candidate’s intercession. The prefect of the Congregation then sends the cause for canonization to the pope, who makes the final decision. Once a person is canonized, he or she is officially declared a “Saint” at a special Mass celebrated by the pope.

Father Carter and Deacon DeGaetano are ready to move ahead with the process.

“We have the right now by this Chancery Court to order the exhumation of the body. This is one of the first steps in asking Rome for permission to move ahead with exhumation. Now, we will petition Rome with a design for a new tomb,” Father Carter said.

He noted that in working with the postulator for Father Ryan’s cause in Rome, the exhumation will involve professionals experienced in the process of removing and relocating human remains.

He explained that the postulator or his delegate will be on hand at the exhumation, as will a coroner, funeral home representatives, and Bishop Stika.

“We will collect the relics and remove the remains and transfer them to the basilica to be laid to rest in a sarcophagus inside the church in the basement underneath the 14th Station of the Cross,” Father Carter said, adding that the exhumation isn’t expected to take place until later this year after a basilica historical commission completes its report on Father Ryan as required by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

On Sept. 28, 1878, Father Ryan died of yellow fever after he decided to stay in Chattanooga, where 80 percent of the population fled because of the epidemic, and minister to people who had fallen ill. He was 33.

Father Ryan’s grave lies on Priests’ Mound in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in the East Ridge community of Chattanooga.

Father Carter, who also is a canon lawyer and diocesan vice chancellor for canonical affairs, has said the Catholic Church wants to exhume Father Ryan’s body for several purposes. One of the key reasons, he said, is that the body is brought into the Church for the edification of the faithful, “that the servant of God would be brought near to the faithful who are seeking his cause.”

He said a second reason is the Church wants to examine the status of the body to make sure that it has his body.

Though Father Ryan died of yellow fever, Father Carter said the Church consulted with experts who said there is little risk of exposure in opening the decades-old casket.

If Father Ryan is beatified, it will be in part because of an apostolic letter Pope Francis issued in July 2017, describing an alternate route to sainthood. In addition to their being martyred or displaying heroic virtue, Catholics can become saints if they “have voluntarily and freely offered their life for others and persevered with this determination unto death,” Pope Francis said.

Father Carter described this way as a combination of the two other criteria.

“Here we have a man of good morals and good virtue — even if he wasn’t going to be a Mother Teresa or a St. Francis — here he was and he knew that danger was afoot,” Father Carter said. “He knew that it was going to be detrimental to his life to stay and to minister to people with the yellow fever. But he did it anyway. And he did it out of Christian charity.”


Jim Wogan of the Diocese of Knoxville and Daniel Jackson of Courthouse News Service contributed to this report.

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