A Man for All Seasons

by Peg Maron

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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.”

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Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Holy Land Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan