Constancy Was Its Own Reward Already

When young Michael Ryan, along with young Michael MacNamee, was in the last stages of preparation for the step that would change his life for ever, young East Kilbride was facing changes too. The town was growing rapidly, populated by intrepid souls, many with young families, who had committed themselves, like young Michael Ryan after them, ‘to boldly go where no-one had ever gone before’ -  in their case, to a new town.

The Catholic population in East Kilbride was growing proportionately and the church in the village was woefully inadequate. The splendid church at Whitemoss was still a glint in architect Mr Coia’s eye as, every Sunday, parishioners flocked to the wee village church, where no amount of breathing in or squeezing up could reduce the numbers standing round the sides. The parish priest was Fr Kilcoyne, whose brother was the doctor who had brought baby Michael Ryan into the world some twenty four years earlier. St. Bride’s primary school was bursting at its inadequate seams too. I was a swotty pigtailed person in a densely populated classroom; somewhere in the far distance was the teacher with her Irish accent, doing her best to mark fifty jotters, listen to fifty readers, and test fifty catechism answers, while still miraculously managing to twirl the tawse on the upturned palms of poor spellers and Bad Boys. The spellers remained poor, the Boys remained Bad, but the teacher had a good daily work-out, as was the pedagogical custom of the time.

Then one day something very strange happened. The class population halved! The teacher could now be viewed at such close quarters that it could be seen that she had freckles on her arms. The reason for the mass exodus? The opening of Our Lady of Lourdes school in a galaxy far, far away. Soon stories came back from that distant, fabled land of the new, young, handsome Irish priest there, who had a motorbike and leather jacket. His name was Fr Ryan. Somewhere in my mind I assimilated this information and got back to the reading, the catechism and the tawse-avoidance tactics. Life went on in St Bride’s parish: we began to worship in the wonderful new church; the wee village church became the parochial (or, according to some, the Pinocchiol) hall; I started life in my delightful High School in Bothwell, gasping at wriggly mercury and glowing phosphorus in the science class, weeping copiously over the fate of Dickensian characters in the English class and unravelling labyrinthine grammar in the Latin class. At some point during these years, word came from away across the parish boundary that Fr Ryan had left East Kilbride for St Anne’s in Hamilton. Later, he went over to the dark side, across the Clyde into what is now known as North Lanarkshire, where he worked with the lucky parishioners of St Bernadette’s in Motherwell, St Teresa’s in Newarthill, (where one of the altar servers was one bespectacled Gerard, later Father, Bogan), before serving in St Mungo’s Garthamlock with its then affiliated parish, St Dominic’s, Craigend.

It was to be twenty three years or so before Fr Ryan returned in the summer of 1989 to East Kilbride: the final frontier. Our dear parish priest, Fr (now Monsignor) John McIntyre, had been spirited off to be the Rector in the Scots College in Rome. Fr Ryan arrived to look after us; he was beamed up and the rest, as they say, is history.

We all of us in the faith community of St Bride have our own stories of Fr Ryan, some of them perhaps for public airing, others perhaps personal and private. I myself think with gratitude of working with Fr Ryan on the Renew programme when he first arrived in the parish, and to his support for the starting of the Faith Friends programme and, indeed, ‘Whitemoss Chronicles’. I remember with gratitude his being around for the joyful events of my daughter’s wedding and grandchildren’s baptisms; I remember with gratitude his kindness and attention to my wee dad during his long illness. I remember with gratitude the interest Fr Ryan has always taken in those enquiring about reception into the Church. Stranger than fiction was the lady a few years ago who wanted to find out more about the Church; when, in my role as a member of the RCIA team, I asked her what prompted her interest, (I knew it was the Holy Spirit but I was keeping that a secret in the meantime), she told me that, among lots of other things about the Church which interested her, she had been fascinated as a child by the handsome young priest in Our Lady Of Lourdes who had frequently arrived on his motorbike to visit an old lady in her street. She and her pals used to sit on the pavement in a swoony sort of way waiting to see him arrive in a zoomy sort of way.

I am lucky enough to have worked abroad from time to time for the past eighteen years or so. I am very grateful for these experiences because they have enabled me to sample at first hand the universality of our wonderful Church. For example, I have taken part in the offertory procession at the Easter Vigil in Singapore Cathedral; I have been uplifted by the wonderful African rhythms of the music at Mass in Botswana; I have gone to Mass in Sri Lanka, passing every few hundred yards colourful wayside shrines dedicated either to garland-bedecked Our Lady or to identically bedecked Buddha; I have been many times at Sunset Mass in Kuala Lumpur in the Cathedral on Bukit Nanas (Pineapple Hill: who wouldn’t want to be a Catholic if they could go to a church on Pineapple Hill?) While marvelling at the novelty of other cultures, and thanking our God of Surprises for the opportunity to do so, I look forward to getting back home to the constant of St Bride’s and our parish priest, who will welcome me back and ask all about my adventures. Somehow, our constant Fr Ryan is like a good book – he is always right there where you left him.

Fr Ryan is the hub at the centre of the wheel of activity that is our parish community. He is right there in the public worship of the whole community and in the private joys and sorrows of individuals; he is in the ebb and flow of parish groups and of the Liturgical Year; his are the sublimes of ministry such as comforting the dying and the bereaved, and the mundane business of paying bills and replacing light bulbs. All of this work he approaches with tolerance and good humour; Fr Ryan has the heartiest laugh in the history of hearty laughs. And of course he is at the centre of the greatest constant of all: the Mass. For twenty years, Fr Ryan has been the minister for us in what Vatican II described as ‘the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed’. We know that, given the health to do it, and sometimes even when that isn’t so clear either, we can rely on Fr Ryan to celebrate Mass for us if he possibly can.

In a poem dedicated to his brother Hugh, Irish poet Seamus Heaney marvels at how Hugh has remained steadfast throughout life, despite trouble and, indeed, The Troubles in the north of Ireland; his admiration for Hugh is encapsulated in the poem’s title: ‘Keeping Going’. He praises Hugh: ‘my dear brother, you have good stamina. You stay on where it happens’. In another poem, ‘A Sofa In The Forties’, he paints a delightful picture of the eight Heaney children, of whom he was the eldest, pretending that the family sofa is a train. They have to hold on for grim death to ‘pour through’ imaginary tunnels; they are ‘fit for the uncomfortableness’. Such balance requires hard work and perseverance, but ‘constancy was its own reward already’. Heaney appreciates the virtue of perseverance, sometimes a scarce commodity in our casual, disposable age of built-in obsolescence. And it is perseverance, constancy, keeping going, stamina, being fit for uncomfortableness – and the grace of God – that have brought Canon Ryan to this splendid day.

Canon Ryan, on the Golden Anniversary of your Ordination to the Priesthood, the parish community of St Bride thank you for your constancy. You have good stamina. You stay on where it happens. May God reward you for keeping going for ‘our good and the good of all the Church’.

Lynn Toner