Inquiry begins into Fr. Ryan sainthood cause

Basilica at center of historic moment as Bishop Stika presides in opening session

By Bill Brewer

The cause for the beatification and canonization of Servant of God Patrick Ryan took a historic turn Sept. 28 with the opening session of an inquiry into the East Tennessee priest’s life and the installation of a tribunal to examine evidence supporting his candidacy for sainthood.

Clergy taking part in the inquiry for the cause for beatification and canonization of Servant of God Patrick Ryan process into the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga on Sept. 28.

Bishop Richard F. Stika presided at the opening session of the inquiry, held at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, where Father Ryan once served. In remarks to the congregation of priests, deacons, religious, lay witnesses, and other observers, Bishop Stika noted that the official examination of Father Ryan, who died during a yellow fever outbreak in Chattanooga in the 1800s, is occurring as a new virulent outbreak grips East Tennessee.

As part of the inquiry’s opening session, a volume of research into the young priest’s life that was compiled by the cause’s historical commission was officially submitted, as were many documents related both to the cause and those carrying out the inquiry.

Father Ryan was pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish from 1872 to 1878 when it was part of the Diocese of Nashville. He died at the age of 33 in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 that swept through Chattanooga. As thousands of residents fled the city to escape the contagion, Father Ryan remained to serve those stricken with the illness and contracted it himself.

In 1886, when his remains were reburied on Priests’ Mound, one of the largest funeral corteges ever witnessed in Chattanooga accompanied Father Ryan’s body to Mount Olivet Cemetery. He was remembered for his courage and selfless sacrifice in helping others.

Bishop Stika and basilica rector Father David Carter are leading the canonization cause at the diocesan level, enlisting the help of many volunteers to promote the cause.

“You might ask yourself, ‘Why all this paperwork and this ceremony following this process?’ Well, there’s a good reason for that. Millions and millions and millions of people have lived and existed throughout the centuries, people of holiness and goodness and charity and kindness, people who have followed Jesus and knew of that special relationship that their prayers were involved with, as often we pray through Christ, Our Lord. But also people need role models,” Bishop Stika said.

“So often in our present age there are sports figures, politicians, and all kinds of people who are out there and we really don’t know much about their life. We maybe know about their skill set, such as in athletics. But here we are looking at a process that is much, much deeper. The relationship of one person to God and how they have lived their life, how they have taught the faith, both in word and in witness,” he added. “I do think it ironic that as this process has been continuing these last couple of years, we’re at this point again with a virus (coronavirus), with something contagious, with something of a mystery. In the 1870s, not much was known about yellow fever. Maybe the causes, but not necessarily how to deal with it, just like in our day and age. We’re still trying to ascertain that. Maybe we can all pray, and invite others to pray for the intercession of Father Ryan, who did not abandon his people. Whether they were Catholic or Christian, believers or not, he saw in everyone the presence of God.”

Deacon Sean Smith, right, collects signed documents from Father David Carter during the opening session of the inquiry into Father Patrick Ryan’s life.

Also taking part in the ceremony, held in the basilica sanctuary at the altar, were Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville, and diocesan priests Father John Orr, Father Michael Hendershott, Father Nick Tran, Father Joe Brando, Father Moises Moreno, and Father Valentin Iurochkin.

Officials for the cause of sainthood of Father Ryan are Bishop Stika; Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, who is the diocesan postulator; Father Carter, who is the episcopal delegate and judicial vicar for the tribunal; Father Orr, who is the promoter of justice; Deacon Hicks Armor, who is a notary; and Rebecca Dempsey and Jennifer Morris, who are adjunct notaries.

Diocese of Knoxville chancellor Deacon Sean Smith serves as a notary, too, administering the official inquiry documents. Other deacons in attendance were John DeClue and Tom McConnell.

Also present to observe were lay participants in the cause, witnesses, and the public, including Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, Knights of Columbus, and the media.

The ceremony began with the Liturgy of the Hours Mid-Morning Prayer. Hymns were sung by the Gloria Dei Schola. After Psalms were recited and readings offered, officials for the cause of sainthood took their oaths and were sworn in.

Members of a historical commission charged with compiling the historical record of Father Ryan presented their documents, placing their bound volume of archive material on the altar.

Members of the historical commission are Brother Reginald Cruz, John Hilgeman, Michael Meehan, Mary Portera, and in memoriam Barbara DeGaetano, deceased wife of Deacon DeGaetano.

Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano gives an account of Father Patrick Ryan’s life during the opening session of the inquiry into the cause for sainthood for the Chattanooga priest. Observing at right is Nashville Bishop J. Mark Spalding.

Deacon DeGaetano also gave a lengthy account of Father Ryan’s life and ministry from the pulpit.

A concluding prayer for Father Ryan was given, and Bishop Stika closed the session.

Following the session was a noon Mass for the Dead for a Priest, which was celebrated for the repose of the soul of Father Ryan. Bishop Stika was the Mass celebrant, with Bishop Spalding serving as the primary concelebrant. Diocesan priests also concelebrated. Cardinal Rigali was in choir.

Bishop Stika called the launch of the inquiry into Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood a special moment for the Catholic Church in East Tennessee and the entire state. He noted that when Father Ryan served Chattanooga, he was a priest of the Diocese of Nashville.

The bishop then pointed out that Knights of Columbus founder Father Michael McGivney will be beatified by the Church this month, and the miracle attributed to his intercession involved Mikey Schachle, a son of Daniel and Michelle Schachle, who live in the Diocese of Nashville. Mr. Schachle is the lead Tennessee agent for Knights of Columbus financial services.

“The Church holds up holy people. And the Church believes that all of us are called to holiness, to recognize in each other the presence of God, to follow the Lord, to follow Jesus, to be people of prayer, of charity, kindness, and compassion. All virtues that Father Ryan lived,” Bishop Stika said. “We pray that as this process continues, someday soon I hope, within a year or so, the Holy Father will assent to Father Ryan’s cause. And then Father Ryan will be called venerable, for now he is a servant of God. Then, God willing, a miracle through his intercession will take place. And the city of Chattanooga will welcome a representative of the Holy Father. As tradition seems to be now, the actual beatification will take place in this city, a city that Father Ryan loved. Then, God willing for that second miracle, someday we might rejoice with the Church throughout the world that the title of saint be added to his name.”

The cause for sainthood for Father Patrick Ryan continues moving forward. With the historical record now in the hands of the tribunal, Father Carter and Father Orr will examine them to ensure there is nothing in Father Ryan’s record that is contrary to the faith and moral teaching of the Church.

Once the record is completed, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican will review all the evidence.

Father Carter, who during the Mass was re-installed as rector of the basilica, is confident the historic record attesting that Father Ryan is worthy of sainthood is complete and accurate.

“This is a major step in the process for the diocesan cause of canonization before it goes to Rome. We’ve had the historical commission researching all of the founts and archives available to us to tell the story of Father Ryan and find out all the pertinent information. Now that they have made their report, they entrusted it in this first inquiry session, which was presided over by the bishop as the ordinary of the diocese. The notary was the chancellor of the diocese, Deacon Sean Smith. The members of the inquiry tribunal have been sworn in their solemn duties,” Father Carter said.

“This is the official beginning of making interviews with all the witnesses and finding out the information firsthand so we can write it down and make our report to Rome,” he continued.

Bishop Richard F. Stika watches as Rebecca Dempsey and Jennifer Morris prepare to be sworn as adjunct notaries for the cause for the beatification and canonization of Servant of God Patrick Ryan.

Father Carter said the story of Father Ryan was already compelling, and they knew he was someone who offered his life for those suffering from communicable illness. He pointed out that the priest’s reputation has been widely reported through the years, leading to numerous media accounts of his ministry. In Chattanooga, a Knights of Columbus council is named for him as is a Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree assembly.

“The people of Chattanooga hailed him as a hero of the city for his work during the epidemic. So we knew the cause had merit, which is why we were confident to proceed,” the cause’s episcopal delegate said. “The research has borne out our presumptions, and our hypothesis seems to have been proven. But we will do the due diligence of asking all the questions, going through the interviews of all the witnesses we have lined up to testify. Between Father Orr and I, we will arrive at the truth of the matter and write it up in the final report, which will be submitted to Rome, hopefully by next year at this time.”

Father Carter said a ceremony similar to the opening of the inquiry will be held to close the inquiry. As for a timetable to sainthood, Father Carter believes that is for God and Father Ryan to work a miracle. “It is on God’s time.”

Father Carter shared that the cause for Father Ryan’s canonization already has a report of intercessory power, and if it can be proven to be a miracle and then if that report is accepted by Rome, he could be beatified.

Bishop Spalding said the Diocese of Nashville shares the enthusiasm the Diocese of Knoxville has in seeing Father Ryan’s cause for canonization move forward.

“The Diocese of Nashville was the only diocese of the state up until early 1970, and then of course the Diocese of Knoxville (founded) in ’88 was the diocese of incardination for Father Patrick Ryan. We as the mother church, as Bishop Stika referenced many times throughout the ceremony, rejoice with the Diocese of Knoxville this day on this great occasion,” Bishop Spalding said.

He noted that the upcoming beatification of Father McGivney in Hartford, Conn., will be a celebration for Nashville as well as the state of Tennessee because of its Diocese of Nashville connection. Congressman Fleischmann, who is a basilica member, honored Father Ryan recently with remarks he made about the Chattanooga priest on the floor of the House of Representatives. The cause for the Servant of God’s beatification and canonization was read into the congressional record through Rep. Fleischmann’s comments.

He compared the excitement surrounding Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood to Sts. Peter and Paul Church being designated by the Vatican as a minor basilica in 2011.

“This is truly an incredible day, not only for our great Church, but also for our great city and our great parish,” Rep. Fleischmann said.

Bishop Richard F. Stika convenes the inquiry flanked by Deacons Sean Smith, right, Gaspar DeGaetano, left, and Hicks Armor, behind.

“It’s a day of spirituality. It’s a day of faith. It’s a day of recognition. And it highlights the beauty of our Church.”

Bishop Stika on June 14, 2016, signed a decree officially establishing the Diocese of Knoxville as the petitioner in the cause of beatification and canonization of Father Ryan. The bishop requested and received endorsement for advancing Father Ryan’s cause for sainthood from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the USCCB’s November 2016 fall general assembly.

Bishop Stika has announced approval by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to exhume Father Ryan’s remains in Chattanooga’s Mount Olivet Cemetery and relocate them to the basilica. Father Carter has said a tomb will be built and placed inside the basilica to contain the priest’s remains according to canon law.

Exhumation of remains typically is done as part of the cause 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.

As the process for relocating Father Ryan’s remains to the basilica is completed and the historical report is submitted, the diocesan tribunal begins gathering testimony about the life and virtues of the Servant of God. This documentary, or diocesan, phase of the process culminates with the ultimate decision by Bishop Stika as to whether heroic virtues of Father Ryan have been demonstrated.

This documentation is presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which begins the Roman phase of the process. A Vatican official is appointed to shepherd the cause through the Roman phase. The official brings the report on Servant of God Patrick Ryan to a theological commission, which votes for or against the cause for sainthood based on the documentation. If their vote is yes, a recommendation of a Decree of Heroic Virtues is sent to the pope, whose decision is final.

Once the individual’s heroic virtues have been recognized by the Holy Father, he or she is declared venerable. The remaining step before beatification is the approval of a miracle.

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