About Peter F. Ryan, S.J.
Peter French Ryan was born in 1952 in Washington, D.C., the fourth of eight children, and raised in Kensington, Maryland. His parents were devout Catholics who met at Harvard, where his father, Philip, was studying law and his mother, Inez née French, was studying art history. Philip Ryan taught for many years at Georgetown Law School and then became a partner at the Baker and McKenzie law firm. He died in 1977. Inez Ryan, a devoted homemaker, died in 2009.
Ryan attended Catholic grade school and high school, and graduated in 1974 from Loyola College in Maryland with a B.A. in Political Science. He did not, however, apply himself diligently to his studies, nor, though he continued to go to Sunday Mass, did he devote himself seriously to his faith.
During the summer between his junior and senior years, however, Ryan experienced a profound spiritual awakening. Having imbibed far too much of the secular college culture, he found himself wondering, at a July 4th fireworks celebration, why he wasn’t making more of his life. Despite trying to turn his thoughts elsewhere, he was unable to ignore that distressing question. The striking beauty of the fireworks that night stood in stark contrast to the painful sadness gripping his heart.
Later he understood his anguish as caused by the Holy Spirit who, St. Ignatius Loyola explains, stings with remorse the consciences of those going from bad to worse. Ryan’s past experiences of failure in trying to change his life left him feeling powerless to do so. But before he went to bed that night, he was moved to kneel down and pray, over and over, a desperate plea for help, one he had never prayed or even heard before: “Lord Jesus Christ, please invade me with your Holy Spirit.”
The next evening, without recalling that intense experience, Ryan contacted a faith-filled young woman he wanted to ask out. Before he could do so, she invited him to a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting, and they went that very evening. Ryan found himself torn. Though not used to such emotional expressiveness and therefore disinclined to be open to the experience, he was strongly attracted by the evident joy of the people he met who spoke so freely about the love of Jesus.
At a certain point, when the praise—the “singing in tongues”—reached a crescendo, Ryan had a profound experience of what St. Ignatius describes as the Holy Spirit stirring up strength, consolation, and tranquility in those who are earnestly purging away their sins. It was then that Ryan remembered the prayer he had so fervently prayed the evening before, and he could not deny that Jesus had graciously and promptly answered that prayer.
This experience altered the course of Ryan’s life. His faith became central, but it took time for him to let go of his own plans and be open to God’s far better plan for him—to hear that God was calling him not to a relationship with that young woman or to marriage at all, but to the priesthood. Once he opened himself to this prospect, he felt drawn to the Jesuits, whom he had met both at Loyola College and at the Georgetown Prep School, where he served for a time as a residence hall prefect.
Though he had been warned by several well-intentioned friends to avoid the Jesuits, he couldn’t shake the sense that the Holy Spirit was leading him to them. Ryan was attracted by the wide variety of apostolic works to which he might contribute, not least the education apostolate, and by the prospect of sharing community life with others similarly called. So, after three years of trying to discern God’s plan while working at various jobs, he entered the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in August of 1977.
After a two-year novitiate, during which he learned about Jesuit life, made the thirty-day Ignatian spiritual exercises, and engaged in diverse apostolic activities, Ryan was blessed with the opportunity to enter anew into a program of studies. He was assigned from 1979–82 to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. There he co-founded a student pro-life group and a local chapter of Birthright. He also developed an interest in natural law and saw the need for a sound response to secular humanists, who generally take a dim view of natural law.
He was greatly impressed with John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights, and noticed that the theory of fundamental human values undergirding this work follows Germain Grisez’s theory of basic human goods. At that time, Ryan knew about Grisez mainly because of his pioneering work on abortion and because Ryan’s brother—who became a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and a missionary in Togo—had been among Grisez’s Georgetown students around 1970 and had spoke highly of him as professor, mentor, and friend.
Peter Ryan’s philosophy thesis at Gonzaga compared John Finnis’s natural law jurisprudence with the positivistic approach of H. L. A. Hart. Ryan was awarded an M.A. in English literature in 1982 and a Licentiate in Philosophy, magna cum laude, in 1985.
From August 1982 to June 1984, Ryan did the traditional Jesuit period of regency at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, where he taught basic Latin and English literature and directed plays. His scholarly interests continued, and he began to participate in the annual conventions of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. His association with the Fellowship became permanent, and he served on its board of directors for several terms.
For the theological studies required to prepare for priestly ordination, Ryan was sent in August of 1984 to Regis College in Toronto, where he received a Master of Divinity degree summa cum laude. When he had questions about a particular theological author or issue, he would often consult Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus, volume 1: Christian Moral Principles. Ryan found it extremely helpful, but had not yet studied that almost 1,000-page volume in depth.
While at Regis, Ryan also developed an interest in the relationship between human nature and grace, and the related question of ultimate human fulfillment. After a conversation with Grisez, Ryan began to consider those matters as a field in which he might eventually identify a topic for a theology dissertation. During his final year of studies in Toronto, Ryan served as a deacon at St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Ordained to the priesthood on 6 June 1987, Father Ryan worked for a year at Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C. He was then assigned to study at the Gregorian University in Rome. After his first year in Rome, during which he was exposed to various vexing questions in moral and systematic theology, Ryan decided to dedicate his summer to a thorough study of Grisez’s Christian Moral Principles.
As Ryan began to grasp Grisez’s overall theological view, he not only became convinced of its soundness but also found much of Grisez’s argumentation helpful in dealing with theological questions to which Ryan had not found adequate answers elsewhere. At this time he began to collaborate with Grisez by sending him extensive comments on draft chapters of The Way of the Lord Jesus, volume 2: Living a Christian Life. Grisez found those comments very helpful, and was amazed by some of them, which pointed out inconsistencies with Christian Moral Principles or otherwise evidenced how well Ryan had mastered it.
In 1996, Ryan received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology magna cum laude. His dissertation—Moral Action and the Ultimate End of Man: The Significance of the Debate between Henri de Lubac and his Critics—considered the relationship between the natural human desire for fulfillment and God’s gift of the beatific vision.
From 1994 to 2001, Ryan was an assistant professor of theology at his alma mater, Loyola College, where he engaged in priestly ministry and served as faculty moderator for the student pro-life group. He also continued his collaboration with Grisez, primarily by working with him in person on The Way of the Lord Jesus, volume 3: Difficult Moral Questions and volume 4: Clerical and Consecrated Life and Service. Ryan greatly helped with a 129-page outline for the latter volume, on which the two worked together for several months in 1998, and later by commenting on drafts of the three chapters that Grisez completed. During this time Ryan also wrote several articles, the most important of which developed themes from his dissertation.
From August 1998 to June 1999, Ryan took a leave of absence from his position at Loyola College in order to do his tertianship, which is the final stage of formal Jesuit formation. Ryan studied the foundational documents of the Society of Jesus, once again made the thirty-day Ignatian spiritual exercises, and then served for almost five months as a parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Parish in Benin City, Nigeria. On Saturday, November 4, 2000, Ryan pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit.
In 2001, Ryan began serving as an Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he also did spiritual direction and formation advising for seminarians. Being at the same university as Grisez was providential, and their collaboration continued. The two often helped each other with the work they were doing, and their friendship as well as Ryan's with Jeannette Grisez greatly deepened. Promoted in 2007 to Professor, Ryan continued serving at the Mount until 2011.
During this time Ryan also served as a senior fellow of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person. His pastoral work included giving spiritual talks, praying with addicts, and hearing confessions at a drug and alcohol rehab. During many summers, Ryan gave spiritual direction to seminarians at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha.
Around 2004, Ryan and Grisez began work on an in-depth book on eschatology, tentatively titled: God’s Kingdom, Human Flourishing, and Hell: A Christocentric Eschatology. That work is still in progress, but a sketch of the book is the final chapter of Moral Good, the Beatific Vision, and God’s Kingdom, a collection of articles by Grisez and Ryan.
From January 2012 to June 2013, Ryan served as Professor of Moral Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. During that period, Grisez and Ryan continued working on their eschatology project and coauthored an article, “Hell and Hope for Salvation,” which argues that expecting everyone to be saved prevents one from hoping for one’s own or anyone else’s salvation.
In 2013, Rev. Peter F. Ryan, S.J., S.T.D., began serving as Executive Director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He also continues doing priestly ministry and spiritual direction, and has recorded a scriptural version of all twenty mysteries of the rosary with Janis M. Clarke, a consecrated virgin, singer, and songwriter.