Sainthood cause for Chattanooga priest enters new phase

By Bill Brewer, The East Tennessee Catholic

CHATTANOOGA. 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 Chattanooga priest’s life and the installation of a tribunal to examine evidence supporting his candidacy for sainthood.

Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville 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 1870s, is occurring as a new virulent outbreak grips the country. (Father Ryan High School in Nashville is named after Father Abram Ryan, no relation to the Chattanooga priest.)

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 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 Chattanooga residents fled the city to escape the contagion, Father Ryan remained to serve those stricken with the illness and contracted it himself.

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. 

The tribunal inquiry, Bishop Stika said, will examine “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.”

Also taking part in the ceremony, held in the basilica sanctuary at the altar, were Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop J. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville.

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 John Orr, who is the promoter of justice; Tyler Ross, who is a tribunal judge; 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.

Also present to observe were lay participants in the cause, witnesses, the public, including U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who is a basilica member, the Knights of Columbus, and the media.

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.

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. 

“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. 

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 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. 

“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,” Father Carter 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 1988 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.