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Another American cause for canonization lands in Rome

Fr. Patrick Ryan's cause presented to Vatican

Courtesy of Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano

John Burger - published on 10/07/23

Diocese of Knoxville officials bring documents about Fr. Patrick Ryan to Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

Another case of a possible saint from the United State is now in the hands of the Vatican. Representatives from the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, this past week brought to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints all the paperwork that was done for the cause of Fr. Patrick Ryan, an Irish-born priest who gave up his life ministering during a yellow fever epidemic in the late 19th century.

In addition to his death in service of others, Fr. Ryan is also remembered for having brought the order of nuns now known as the Nashville Dominicans to his parish.

Deacon Gaspar DeGaetano, vice postulator for the cause, delivered the documents along with Fr. J. David Carter, episcopal delegate to the cause, and others on October 4. 

In an interview, Deacon DeGaetano said he believes it is only the second cause to be introduced under a new category that Pope Francis introduced in 2017: the free offering of one’s life, where sainthood is conferred because the person knowingly put himself in danger for the benefit of others.

Fr. Ryan, when pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul parish (now basilica) in Chattanooga, gave his life in ministering to people who had yellow fever in the epidemic of 1878. He was 33 years old.

The South had a particularly bad epidemic of yellow fever that year. Fr. Ryan and the pastor of the First Presbyterian church — good friends — were among just 1,800 people who stayed in Chattanooga, while some 4/5 of the population fled from the pandemic.

Insisting on caring for the victims, Fr. Ryan came down with yellow fever himself on September 26, 1878. He was much sicker on the morning of the 27th, and his newly ordained younger brother, Michael, administered the Last Sacraments to his big brother. Father Patrick died on the morning of September 28, 1878.

It was Deacon DeGaetano’s idea to initiate the cause when he transferred his Knights of Columbus membership to the council at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where Fr. Ryan had been pastor. Council 610 is named for Fr. Ryan. He suggested to Fr. Carter, who was rector of the basilica, that it was time to start a cause of canonization for Fr. Ryan.

Fr. Carter agreed. So did Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville, who in 2016 petitioned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to advance the cause. The bishops voted to do so. Deacon DeGaetano formed a historical commission to prepare the paperwork for Rome.

Praying for a miracle

Along the way, the diocese exhumed Fr. Ryan’s body and reinterred it in the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul. Fr. Ryan was not found to be incorrupt, as Deacon DeGaetano was hoping, but his vestments were. He said the diocese is planning to put those vestments on display. 

Just days before the presentation of the documents in Rome, on September 28, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville presided over the closing session of the Tribunal of Inquiry that examined the life, Christian virtues, heroic offering of life, reputation for holiness, and signs of intercessory power of Fr. Ryan. Archbishop Kurtz, who served as Bishop of Knoxville from 1999 to 2007, placed his wax seal on bundles of papers that would be taken to the Vatican.

That day, as well, the diocese premiered a documentary about the hoped-for saint, Fr. Ryan: A Higher Call, directed by Veronica DiPippo. The film crew agreed to make it at cost. 

For Deacon DeGaetano, the next step is to spread knowledge of the cause and “get people to pray for Fr. Ryan’s intercession” for a miracle. There have already been several interesting “favors” reported after people prayed to Fr. Ryan.

“There have been a couple of cases that bordered on the miraculous,” the deacon said, but none has risen to the level of a miracle – the proof needed for beatification and then canonization. 

Fr. Ryan joins a number of other Americans, including Blessed Michael McGivney, Dorothy Day and Augustus Tolton, whose cause for canonization is being considered by Rome.

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