ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Man for All Seasons

The first few turbulent but productive years of Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan’s tenure as President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and Secretary of CNEWA.

The phone rang at midnight.

Picking up the receiver, 44-year-old Monsignor Joseph T. Ryan heard the voice of his bishop, the Most Rev. William Scully of Albany.

Bishop Scully had just returned from a meeting with his fellow bishops from the State of New York. Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York City had asked him to suggest a candidate with military experience to be chancellor of the Military Ordinariate, which the Cardinal served as vicar.

The Bishop selected Msgr. Ryan for the job. The date was 1 May 1957.

A year later, Cardinal Spellman asked Msgr. Ryan to go to Lebanon to direct the Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. The Cardinal had already discussed the proposed reassignment with Bishop Scully, and Msgr. Ryan was free to go. In June 1958, he left for Beirut.

There were no jets then and the trip required a stopover in Rome. On the plane with the Monsignor was the young scripture scholar, Father Raymond Brown, S.S., who was en route to the Scripture Institute in Jerusalem. Civil strife was raging in Lebanon and when they landed in Beirut the airfield was under fire. Msgr. Ryan could not go to his hotel because of the fighting there, so he was taken to the Excelsior Hotel in downtown Beirut. Father Brown, whose works on biblical events are widely read today, was also without accommodations, so he went with Msgr. Ryan. Such was the introduction of the new Field Director to Lebanon.

At first, the fighting in Lebanon hindered Msgr. Ryan’s work, and indeed he disclosed in a recent interview that for the first few months he could not get out at all. Eventually he was to travel extensively throughout Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Transjordan. Assisting Palestinians in the refugee camps in Beirut, including Dbayeh, where Christian refugees were concentrated, was a major part of his work.

Also significant was the distribution of clothing and surplus food to Palestinian refugees in Amman and Jerusalem (which were part of Transjordan at that time) and it was during Msgr. Ryan’s tenure in Beirut that surplus food distribution in Gaza was initiated. The Pontifical Mission worked closely with both Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the United Nations in these projects. Msgr. Ryan also served on a CRS migration commission, helping Palestinians who wished to emigrate to find refuge in the United States and other countries.

In the course of his travels, Msgr. Ryan met King Hussein of Jordan a number of times and came to know him fairly well. Ever gracious, the King consented to be photographed with the Monsignor on several occasions. This never failed to amaze the American, as he was much taller than the King and towered over him.

Working with Msgr. Ryan in the Beirut office were two laymen, Ibrahim Fakhoury and Nakleh Asfour, and Father Denis Mooney, a Franciscan priest from the Commissariat of the Holy Land, whose assistance Msgr. Ryan found invaluable.

At that time, the French had traditionally safeguarded Lebanese interests while Americans were not popular. As was the custom. Msgr. Ryan wore his cassock, which made him highly visible. Father Mooney advised him, “Since you don’t speak French, if they ask you where you are from, say Ireland.”

While he was in Beirut, Msgr. Ryan met a displaced Palestinian family named Batato. The parents were very proud of their three daughters, baptized – by an Irish missionary – Kathleen, Maureen and Eileen. Maureen entered the Sisters of St. Dorothy and eventually became a provincial; the other two married. One, Eileen Batato Nesnas, was a mainstay of the work of the Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office for nearly 30 years.

Msgr. Ryan’s work in Beirut was cut short by illness and in 1959 he asked to be replaced. After some delay, Msgr. Stephen J. Kelleher was sent to relieve him, and in March 1960, Msgr. Ryan returned to New York en route, he thought, to Albany and resumption of his pastoral work there. Cardinal Spellman however had other plans and asked him to remain in the New York offices of Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission. In December 1960, Msgr. Peter P. Tuohy, National Secretary of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission, returned to his native Archdiocese of Boston and Msgr. Ryan was appointed to replace him.

Shortly after assuming his new duties, Msgr. Ryan wrote to Bishop Eustace J. Smith, O.F.M., Apostolic Vicar in Beirut, “It will take me some time to get a complete understanding of the entire operation.” The new National Secretary quickly rolled up his sleeves, however, and got to work.

Approximately six months after Msgr. Ryan’s appointment, in June 1961, Msgr. Kelleher sent him a proposal for the establishment of a center for the blind in Gaza. Msgr. Ryan was definitely interested.

During his tenure in Beirut, Msgr. Ryan learned of a frequent cause of blindness: often mothers did not brush flies from the eyes of their babies. As they grew older the children continued to tolerate the insects. The flies laid their eggs in the eyes of the children, which in turn caused blindness.

In September 1961 the decision was made to build the Pontifical Mission School for the Blind in Gaza. Estimates were submitted, and the Pontifical Mission agreed to construct the school and provide maintenance costs for two years. As President of the Pontifical Mission, Msgr. Ryan wrote to each of the directors of schools for the blind in the United States and to members of the American Federation of Catholic Workers for the Blind asking for advice and assistance for the Gaza project. Their gifts, together with those of other donors, enabled the Pontifical Mission to go ahead with the school.

In 1964, Msgr. Ryan attended the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay, India. Afterward, he toured the southwestern state of Kerala and visited leaders of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. The Monsignor also inspected many churches and chapels, schools and convents that CNEWA had built there. A special memory is that of his visit to a hospital for patients with Hansen’s disease.

To each patient he brought a gift of a blanket and candy.

Late in the autumn of 1963, Pope Paul VI electrified the world when he announced that he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land early in 1964. Shortly before Christmas, as plans for the forth-coming papal trip were being formulated, Bishop James H. Griffiths, who was an unofficial observer for the Holy See at the United Nations, advised Msgr. Ryan to speak with Cardinal Spellman about the trip. The Holy Father was sure to be faced with the problems of the Palestinian refugees and should be well briefed in advance. The Cardinal suggested that Msgr. Ryan go to Rome himself to brief the Secretary of State, Amleto Cardinal Cicognani. The papal trip was scheduled for the feast of the Epiphany, and right after Christmas Msgr. Ryan flew to Rome.

He spoke with Cardinal Cicognani and among other things it was decided that the American priest would be included in the party accompanying the Pope to Jerusalem. He was reportedly the only American in the papal party. It was also decided that the Pope would make two symbolic gifts to demonstrate the Holy See’s concern for the fate of the Palestinian refugees: one, in the amount of $20,000, to the Pontifical Mission and the other, in the amount of $5,000, to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

A project dear to the hearts of Msgr. Ryan and his associate, Msgr. John G. Nolan, then Assistant Secretary of CNEWA, was a television show they presented every Sunday called “The Catholic Week in Review.” Both were experienced media men. Msgr. Ryan had started a radio and television show in Albany in 1954, and Msgr. Nolan, also from Albany, had considerable public relations background. They were not permitted to broadcast the Mass on television at that time, so every Sunday they said the Rosary. Guests from a variety of parishes were invited to join them. Afterward, the two priests would speak about the work of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission.

Msgr. Ryan continued as National Secretary of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission until the spring of 1966, when Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska.

Msgr. Ryan’s tenure at Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission was marked by several outstanding events: Vatican II, the Eucharistic Congress, the historic visits of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land and to the United Nations in New York. During a period of great achievement, but great uncertainty in the church and in the world, he guided CNEWA and its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, with care and skill.

Msgr. Ryan served as Archbishop of Anchorage until December 1975, when he was named Coadjutor Military Vicar of U.S. Armed Forces. He was appointed the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., in March 1985, a post he held until his retirement in May 1991.

Today Archbishop Ryan lives in Washington, D.C., where he remains active in pastoral work.

Peg Maron is Production Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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