In Your Midst
Celebrating 40 Years of Ministry
July 2006

   In honor of Father Ryan's 40th Anniversary of Ordination to the priesthood,
In Your Midst offers these excerpts from his homilies, 1988 to the present

 

    At the time of my ordination as a priest, I was not particularly shy about telling the world who I was and what I wanted my ministry to be about. I proclaimed it rather grandly and in a way that, looking back, makes me feel just a bit embarrassed. On a prayer card commemorating my ordination I had printed the words we heard in today’s first reading, words that Jesus later appropriated to himself on the day he first stepped into the pulpit of his hometown synagogue at Nazareth: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn…”

    As I say, I feel a certain embarrassment about having used that particular passage from the Scriptures. Not because those words don’t sum up quite wonderfully what the call to ministry in the church is all about—they do—but because I realize now that when I selected that passage, I was being a bit self-centered: I’m afraid it was the “me” part I heard more than the “God” (The Spirit of the Lord God is upon ME). Now, after nearly thirty years of priestly ministry I’ve awakened to the fact that those words are about God, not about me or any minister of the Gospel. They are about grace, the mysterious and overwhelming power of God’s grace, they are about glad tidings—not my glad tidings—but the glad tidings of God’s love for the poor and the little ones of this earth. And the truth of the matter is that God can use just about anyone to deliver those glad tidings…. And I feel lucky God decided to use me!

    July 23, 1995

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    As a college student, I spent a couple of weeks up in the Skagit Valley teaching catechism to a bunch of second grade kids. Perhaps I should say attempting to teach catechism. One of things I needed to teach them about was, of course, the Holy Trinity. I managed that in less than a half-hour one day and felt quite good about it. Good Irishman that I am, I used St. Patrick’s tried and true method: the shamrock. It seemed the obvious approach to me. There was a problem, however. The kids in Sedro Woolley had never heard of a shamrock so I had to spend a fair amount of effort explaining what a shamrock was. At the end of the week when I gave them a little test to see what they had learned, I asked them to tell me what the Holy Trinity was. One little guy was quick to answer: “Some kind of a plant!”

    So much for my early attempts at teaching (I’m not altogether sure they’ve improved!). In an effort to be true to my Irish heritage I ended up turning the Trinity into a botanical problem. And, you know, I think we often do that when we try to shed light on the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity. Often enough we end up turning the Trinity not into a botanical problem but a math problem (“three in one, one in three”), and in doing that, we succeed in making the Trinity irrelevant—and in pushing it to the outer margins of our faith. I don’t say that because I think mathematics is irrelevant—it’s not, of course—but mathematics doesn’t inspire adoration. Wonder, maybe, but not adoration! And the Trinity, among other things, is about adoration.

Trinity Sunday, 2005

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    Years ago, when I was serving as the vocation director for the Archdiocese, I heard Jesuit Father Michael Buckley give quite a remarkable talk on the qualities needed in candidates for the priesthood. He didn’t say the expected. Rather, he posed this rather surprising question for us to think about with each candidate: “Is this person weak enough to be a priest?” He went on to say what he meant by weakness: an ability to live with a certain amount of failure, and an inability to separate himself from suffering. He expressed the hope that a person approaching priesthood would have known some struggle with self doubt, and fear and inner anguish, and that he would have learned how to live, as all people of faith must live, without easy answers or absolute clarity…

    Weakness. It’s not something we normally view as desirable whether in a priest or anybody else, including ourselves. We tend to admire sterner stuff in a person—self-made qualities, rugged independence, quick resilience. We forget that Jesus struggled long and mightily with the demons of doubt, the demons of easy shortcuts, the demons of anxiety, inadequacy, and fear. How else are we to understand the Jesus of the desert temptations, the Jesus of Gethsemane, the Jesus who was “like us in every way but sin”?

    …no day goes by that I don’t experience how small I am before God, how weak, how much in need of the grace of God. I suspect the same is true for you.

July 6, 1997

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    Several years ago, about the time I was getting ready to come here to the Cathedral as pastor, I had the wonderful opportunity of spending part of this third week of Lent at the ecumenical monastery of Taizé. Taizé is located in the rolling hills of the Burgundy region of France, not far from a place called Cluny which was probably the greatest monastery of the Middle Ages…

    Over the years, millions of pilgrims, most of them young people, have made their way to Taizé to witness this unique community and to imbibe its remarkable spirit. Among the pilgrims have been Pope John Paul II and, before him, Pope John XXIII (hardly a young person but unquestionably young in spirit). John XXIII used to refer to Taizé as “that little Springtime.”

    Taizé was a “springtime” for me personally when I went there. I was tired and a bit scattered at the time. As I think back, I know I was feeling somewhat anxious and inadequate about coming back to Seattle and beginning my new assignment as Pastor of St. James. My heart was racing a bit and so were my fears, but I found at Taizé an oasis of peace and quiet joy. I remember so well sitting in the church there one morning and reading the very passage that is the Gospel for this third Sunday of Lent; the beautiful story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus became very real to me as he spoke of living water, the gift of God, and reminded me that all my thirsting and all my restlessness could be satisfied by him, the living water.

March 14, 1993

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    “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep. I lay down my life for my sheep.” I believe the good shepherd is able to lay down his life for his sheep because he sees in his sheep—sees in each of us—what we so often fail to see: “the hidden beauty of God.” … I must confess to you, my parishioners and friends, how personally challenging I find the parable. I have been called to be a shepherd in the church, a pastor. To be honest, I find it pretty easy to see the face of God in many people, maybe even most people. My challenge is to see the divine face in the angry, disgruntled parishioner, the anonymous letter writer, the turned-off teenager, the disruptive mentally ill person, the rigid reactionary. Yet that is what I am called to do. And, in fact, it is what we are all called to do.

May 7, 2006

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    “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light.” These are words addressed to you, my friends—to all of us. They are reminders that we have an importance that far exceeds the grandeur of this magnificent cathedral, an importance breathed into us by the creator God, an importance that was irrevocably sealed by God’s Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism. We are chosen. We are holy. We are God’s own people. We are the church.
We celebrate tonight the dedication of our cathedral church, but we need to be reminded that a church building, be it a great cathedral or a humble chapel, fulfills its highest calling not by being the church, but by becoming a house for the church, a house for the people of God. And we are that people.

    My friends, we rejoice in a building tonight, but even more, we rejoice in the building that we are: a holy temple in the Lord with Jesus himself as the capstone.

    My friends in Christ, at this altar, Jesus will truly be in our midst, giving himself to us under simple signs of bread and wine. And around this altar we will, I hope, never stop getting the message that it is when we serve each other, especially the poorest and neediest among us, when we find ways to wash one another’s feet, then and only then will we be the church we are called to be. Then and only then, my friends, will we have truly built a great cathedral!

Dedication of St. James Cathedral, December 22, 1994

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    A cathedral can still work its magic even in a hostile or indifferent world, for part of a cathedral’s magic lies in the way it is able to present the beautiful. Cathedrals are still places where people have a unique opportunity to meet the beautiful—whether in architecture, art, or music—because cathedrals can make the beautiful available to everyone regardless of their ability to afford it, to pay for it. You can come to a cathedral and simply take without giving. We are, of course, grateful to those who choose to give, but we always welcome those who don’t or who can’t. I like the way the great contemporary Italian architect, Mario Botta, expresses this. He speaks of opera houses, symphony halls, and theaters as “places of the collective imagination…people buy tickets to go there and dream,” he says. That fits nicely with what one of our homeless parishioners once told me about St. James: “I come here to get lost,” she said.

    I have a favorite cathedral story which dates from the seventeenth century—from the time when Sir Christopher Wren was overseeing the building of his great masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, after the disastrous fire of 1666. One day Wren disguised himself and went into the workshop to see how the workers were getting on. He found three of them there, all doing the same job, cutting and smoothing and preparing the stone. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the fellow said to him, “I am chipping bits off this stone until it’s two feet by three feet by six. And a very boring job it is, too.” And then he asked the second, “What are you doing?” and he replied, “I’m earning a few pence a day and it’s very little when you’ve a wife and six children to feed.” And when he asked the third the same question, he told him, “Ah, I’m a lucky chap. I’m helping a fellow by the name of Christopher Wren to build a great cathedral!”

    That little story captures something of what I believe about cathedrals. It takes different sorts of people to create a cathedral and there is certainly more than one way to view a cathedral, and even to understand it. Like any work of art it is multi-layered, and like many human enterprises, it can serve more than one purpose. Some, like Wren’s stone-cutters, never get past the trees to see the whole forest. No matter. They see something. And for those really willing to look and to search, there is a greatness to be discovered in a cathedral and a whole world of opportunities to be explored. Cathedrals realize a few of those opportunities, I like to think, but only a few, and I know a cathedral will lose its soul the day it thinks it has realized them all. For cathedrals, like so many other human enterprises, are works in progress, unfinished symphonies. Like the God they are meant to image and honor, they defy easy definition and they never run out of possibilities. Place of worship, icon of the heavenly city, bully pulpit, center for the sacred arts, center for social services, crossroads for conversation and controversy, ecumenical center. The cathedral is all these and more.

    Cathedral: Curiosity or Crossroads? April 19, 2004

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    Instead of “Woe to you rich,” how about, “Blessed are you rich, rich in money or power, talent or time. Blessed are you rich because you can do so much for the poor. With all you have, you can do so much for the poor! But blessed are you only if you have the mind of the poor, the mind of Christ, only if you realize that you are more stewards of your possessions than owners, only if you are not enslaved to your possessions and do not place your trust in them. Blessed are you rich, but only if you are willing to lose all you have for the sake of Christ and for the good of your brothers and sisters. Blessed then, but only then, are you rich!”

    And how about, “Blessed are you who are full now. Blessed are you because you are strong enough to feed the hungry. But blessed only if you have the mind of the hungry, the mind of Christ. Only if you do not take your food for granted. Only if you are uncomfortable, deeply uncomfortable, as long as there is one brother or sister who cries out for bread or justice or love. Only if you experience your own profound emptiness, how far you still are from God…”

    And lastly, how about, “Blessed are you who laugh now. Blessed are you because you can bring the joy of life, the joy of Christ to others, to those whose days are often drowned in tears, whose lives are one long agony. Blessed are you who laugh, but blessed only if you laugh at yourselves, if you don’t take yourselves too seriously, if human living doesn’t revolve around you and your needs, but around those for whom laughing is a little-known luxury. Blessed are you who laugh.”

    February 12, 1995

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    One year ago we came to this place or to another like it because we had been brought to our knees by a tragedy of epic proportions and we knew that we were incapable of sorting it all out by ourselves. We needed to be together; we needed the comfort of our faith, the rituals of our religion; and we needed to cry out to God in our pain echoing the Psalmist: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

    The shock and devastation of the events of September 11, seared as they are into our individual and corporate memories, awakened in us a paralyzing feeling of vulnerability that went far beyond any we had ever known. We had thought we were in charge of our lives, waking each morning and going off to work to earn our bread and our livelihood, and then, in a moment of horror and disbelief, we watched people like ourselves for whom an innocent morning turned into a freefall to eternity, and it was almost as if we were watching ourselves.

    We had thought of ourselves as powerful people. Words like “weak” and “defenseless” were not really part of our everyday vocabulary. And then in one blinding moment, they became our only vocabulary as we found ourselves grieving, not only our dead, but our lost innocence, our lost security, our lost hope.

    In the midst of all that wrenching turmoil we came to this place or to another like it and we found not just safety in numbers, not just an anesthetic for our pain, not even just the courage to go on. I think we also found our souls. At least for a moment we found our souls. We found, or found again, the kind of faith and hope and love without which our souls are dead. We found them by looking beyond ourselves; we found them by looking to others and to their needs; we found them by looking to Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection are alone capable of turning tragedy to triumph.

September 11, 2002

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    This holy Church of sinners is the only Church there is. At times we glory in its goodness and at other times we are disheartened by its flaws. In our more enlightened and honest moments we are not surprised by its ups and downs, its glories or its failures because they are our own ups and downs, our own glories and failures. For the Church is not some abstract entity way out there—some impersonal institution off in Rome—the Church is people: holy people, sinful people, people led by the Spirit of God, people dogged by the spirit of evil. We are the Church!

    As we strive to live our lives together as followers of Christ we will sometimes reach the heights achieved by those first disciples who embraced the gospel without compromise and lived it in its purest form, the heights reached by Pope John Paul. At other times, we will more closely resemble Thomas, the hard-headed doubter who wanted no part of the darkness of faith. But even then—even then—Christ will find a way to break through to us as he did to Thomas: gently chiding us but never rejecting us, coaxing us to reach beyond our sins and our doubts and to touch his wounds, touch the Divine Mercy that flows so freely and abundantly in the Church, in the healing grace of the Sacraments.

    Dear friends, our Church stands at a new and uncertain moment as we mourn the loss of an extraordinary Pope… but we do not stand alone. The same Lord who inspired the earliest Christian believers to the heights of holiness and who elicited from fearful, doubting Thomas a dazzling act of faith is with us now and will be with us until the end of time. We are not alone.

The Death of Pope John Paul II, April 3, 2005

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    I suggest to you this Easter morning that all of us who believe in Jesus Christ have had a near-death experience. It’s called baptism. Baptism is the Christian equivalent of the near-death experience. That’s what St. Paul was saying in today’s passage from the Letter to the Colossians: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” “You have died.” We have all died and the life we now live is not just our own, it is Christ living within us. That’s what baptism is about. Baptism is our sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism is not a moment in time; Baptism is a lifetime!

    I once heard a preacher say that everything would be different for us if we took our baptism seriously. He was right. If our baptism could have the same life-altering effect on us as a near-death experience commonly has on a person, then everything would be different: our priorities would change: our faith would be the lens through which we viewed all of life, not just a once-a-week nod to the unseen. And prayer would be our first language, the one that comes to us most naturally. And we would begin to see people differently, too—see them as God sees them. And we would come to see our work not as drudgery, or a necessary evil, or even as just a means to make a living, but as our contribution to the building of God’s kingdom. And our world would look different to us, too, because the appalling violence, the terrible injustices and inequities that are everywhere apparent would awaken us to our call to work for justice and peace—really work for them. So I say it again: if a near-death experience can change everything for a person, imagine what baptism taken seriously could do!

    Dear friends, could this be the Easter that will take us past all the other ones? Could this be the Easter that, like a near-death experience, will make everything different for us? It could be, you know. It really could. The resurrection changed everything for Jesus. Our baptism can do the same for us!

Easter Sunday, 2005

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    On this Sunday we call Pentecost, I want to acknowledge that there is a sense in which every day is Pentecost in this place: every day there are echoes of what we heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles when people from all over the then-known world, strangers all of them to one another—heard one astounding message and became one people.

    Every day is Pentecost in this place as newly-arrived immigrants and refugees find their way to the classrooms of Cathedral Place where you and others like you sit down and unlock for them mysteries of the English language.

    Every day is Pentecost in this place as mothers with small children and low income elderly from all round find a warm welcome and a nourishing meal at the tables of the Family Kitchen.

    Every day is Pentecost here as earnest pilgrims and curious tourists from across the world walk into this splendid Cathedral and find God here, and maybe a glimpse of heaven.

    I experience Pentecost here very Sunday as I look out and see you, an incredible cross-section of God’s holy people: young and old and in-between; married and single and divorced and gay; affluent, and struggling to get by, pious and not-so-pious; outspoken and timid, conservative and liberal; African American, Pacific Islander, Caucasian, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian.

    I experience Pentecost each Sunday as I hear my voice chiming in with the great symphony of your voices as, together, we recite the Nicene Creed: many voices from many places professing faith in the one God. And a culminating moment always comes at Communion time when we pray together the prayer that followers of Jesus have prayed from the beginning, the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. “Our Father.” Sometimes just those two words can almost overwhelm me! And moments later, as I stand ministering the Body of Christ, I sometimes find myself awestruck and nearly speechless as I reflect on what I am saying, “The Body of Christ”—and to whom I am saying it: also the Body of Christ!

Pentecost, June 4, 1995

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    My friends, it was important to me to be able to celebrate this anniversary not as some grand personal glorification—something resembling a dress rehearsal for my canonization. That would never do. There are just too many of you who could play Devil’s Advocate in that process! What I wanted to be able to do today was to give thanks for the gift priestly ministry has been in my life, and to do so by acknowledging all the people who have themselves been such wonderful gifts in my life. And that includes each of you here this afternoon and many more, too. Each of you, for different reasons, and in different ways, has brought grace and joy into my life. You have, all of you at times, endured me; others of you, I suppose, may even have enjoyed me from time to time. But each one of you, in one way or another, has encouraged me by your incredible faith, you have enriched me by your hope, and you have embraced me so generously with your love. How blessed I have been! How blessed I am!

    …Over twenty-five years, I have been privileged to experience a variety of ministries as a priest. I’ve loved working in parishes (St. Patrick’s in Tacoma, the San Juan Islands, Our Lady of Fatima here in Seattle),—I’ve loved working in those parishes but I’ve also found it a blessing to work as teacher and counselor with Seminarians, Deacons, and Religious during my years as Vocation Director; and an altogether unique and special blessing in my life was the privilege of serving for nearly twelve years as Archbishop Hunthausen’s Chancellor. I always thought Chancellor was sort of an exalted title (much more than the reality actually afforded), but there was joy in those years that far outweighed any of the pains or struggles, and the joy was the absolutely immeasurable grace of working alongside one of the truly remarkable spiritual leaders of our time, a man I will always think of as a saint, but whom I am immensely proud to be able to call friend.

    …Every once in a while someone will ask me what it’s like to be a priest in these rather turbulent post-Vatican II years that have defined my years of ministry. Almost always, I find myself telling them how awesome it is to be able to minister to people in the name of Jesus, and how humbling it is when people invite me to be with them at the pivotal moments of their lives: moments of birth and death, moments of growth and pain and heartache, moments overflowing with love and joy. And then, when time and honesty permit, I share with them some of the frustrations that come from my own human limitations as well as the frustrations that I sometimes feel ministering in a church that never seems to move quite as quickly, or to act quite as wisely or courageously as I think it should: a church that preaches social justice quite well but doesn’t always live it; a church that champions equality for everyone but still plays favorites; a church that calls us all to holiness but doesn’t always act so holy as it does so. But then I have to be reminded that the church is made up of folks like me, and then I’m not quite so surprised to find it wanting in justice and wisdom and courage… It’s not a perfect church, but it’s a good church.

25th Anniversary of Ordination, May 17, 1992

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