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Despite amputations and endless ailments, he keeps going deeper


St. Ambrose pastor Fr. Tom Ryan has no legs, but his Berkeley parish runs like clockwork anyway.

He’s got three kidneys (his license plate is Kidney3) and needs a fourth. (These days doctors don’t remove failing kidneys when they do a transplant.)

Ryan’s had hundreds of laser surgeries on his eyes, yet can still see people’s needs. In less than five years, he’s brought a 161-family parish, median age 68, up to 320 families. He revels in the new noises in church: babies crying.

He had a major heart attack in 1998, only 22 percent of his heart is functioning, yet his embrace is as large as all outdoors. And, his doctors tell him, heck, you can live a while longer with a partial heart and failing kidneys. (He’s on dialysis three days a week and hoping for a donor.)

Ryan, 60, is a member of a local group of have-nots called Stumps R Us (some members are an eye or an arm short, too) but his own stumps aren’t doing too well. The blood vessels around the stumps are drying up, and walking on his prostheses is getting harder. That doesn’t stop the parishioners. They take him over to church in his wheelchair if need be, even though they know he’s going to give them the 25-minute homily he’s been working on all week.

Life lessons? Ryan doesn’t dwell on his ailments, doesn’t avoid them. But he does start at the beginning, what it was like as a 15-year-old who lost 56 pounds in 10 days and was plunged into viral diabetes when an everyday immunization went wrong.

“If you fight whatever you have to,” said Ryan, “and say this is not something that will destroy you, you go deeper. You deepen your religion, your spirituality. My spirituality has deepened immensely.”

Because of his illnesses, “I think I learned more about Christ or Jesus himself. Nothing was going right, physically. I was a diabetic, totally dependent on things.”

His family prayed a lot, he said. He had a distant cousin who was Blessed John Neumann’s third miracle. Ryan himself, as a teen, went out to Mother (now St.) Katharine Drexel’s shrine and told her: “If you don’t want to do anything, don’t want to take the diabetes away, fine. I’m not closing my heart to not being cured.”

Seated 45 years later in his small paneled office, people passing through doing parish stuff, Ryan reflected on his teenage attitude, “I said, but if I’m supposed to have it, obviously it’s for the benefit of those who have something, and they’re not dealing with it. They just want to give up on God. They want to give up on themselves. They want to give up on prayer life.

“I have to be an instrument of prayer life for a lot of people,” he decided, and entered St. Charles Seminary, Philadelphia. When, later, the seminary suggested he take a year off to bolster his health, Ryan switched tracks and became a Marist priest, ordained in 1969.

His first assignment was Atlanta when Archbishop Paul Hallinan (an American star at Vatican II, 1962-65) was there. “Great innovator, putting everything together.” Ryan loved those years, which ended when he was assigned to Marist High School -- “a chore. I was trained for parish work.”

Then parish life again, in Marietta, Ga., “Newt Gingrich country, St. Joe’s. The best times. I was innovative, trying to do well.”

But he had one of those legendary pastors: “I tried to change the liturgy to Vatican II rulings. The next week the pastor would say, ‘Let me tell you what the real rule is,’ and changed everything back again.”

There were slave cabins on the church property. Ryan wanted them used as youth cabins “for programs for the kids. ‘Nooo. No, no, no. No kids on the property,’ ” said the pastor and the other priest.

Hemmed in on two sides over many issues, Ryan appealed to higher authority and was told it was easier to move one person than two: Did Ryan want study time in Rome or Berkeley?

There was a new Institute of Spirituality and Worship at Berkeley. Ryan went.

It was the early 1970s. Ryan offered to help out at the Oakland, Calif., cathedral on weekends. He loved the region but returned to his Marist roots after his study year. Not for long. The Oakland cathedral pastor called him, said, “The people loved you here. Can you come back?”

He did, and has been in Oakland ever since. He was almost six years at the cathedral when, in 1978, his health suddenly worsened. The diabetes rapidly affected his eyes. More than 900 laser treatments saved them, but his kidneys failed.

He was on dialysis, working in a Danville, Calif., parish, when the University of California hospital called, said they had a kidney, and did he want it? “July 2 is 22 years,” said Ryan. But the diabetes had created a leg infection. The first leg was amputated in 1980. As a priest, “I was the radical in Danville, pushing things out there, people coming alive. Then they moved me to Hayward, and then as pastor at St, Joseph’s, Pinole. My first pastorship, almost six years. That was good.”

Ryan’s next assignment was hospital chaplaincy, but he was susceptible to all the bugs floating around the medical center, getting whooping cough, strep throat and myriad other diseases in rapid succession. A stint as associate, then to St. Augustine’s, Oakland, as co-pastor with two women. “That was an experimental three years,” he says with satisfaction.

Following a 1989-90 sabbatical, Ryan nursed his health in a series of associate positions. But in 1995 he lost his second leg to diabetes.

“I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to get around?’ I mean I’d learned to do everything with one leg, shower, everything. But how do I shower with no legs?

More than a decade earlier, when Ryan was about to adjust to life with one leg, he met local radio DJ Dan Sorkin at a wedding reception. They were introduced because Sorkin also had only one leg. And Ryan thought, if this fellow can do so well with one leg, I can, too.

Sorkin said he was thinking of starting a group called Stumps R Us, and Ryan became a member. “You can have any part of your body missing,” said a laughing Ryan, “and there’s 188 of us now.” At the Giants and A’s games, when the Stumps are present in the skyboxes they’re invited to use, the scoreboard lights up and welcomes them. One Giants official has an arm and a leg missing.

Through Stumps, Ryan found people who could help him adjust to losing two legs. Legs or not, he’s in his fifth year as St. Ambrose’s pastor.

Ryan succeeded an elderly pastor who had canceled everything from the parish council to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sea Scouts. They were using too much electricity. The pastor had installed 25-watt bulbs in all the house lights. Ryan recreated the parish council, expects every new parish member to sign up for one ministry and said the name of the game in any parish that’s going to work is “hospitality. If there’s no hospitality in a gathering of one hour, forget it.” And he put in 100-watt bulbs.

But the kidneys are failing, and the legs are ailing. “The last two years have been the worst, because I’ve had to go back on dialysis. I’m trying to get another transplant.”

He thought for a moment and added, “My health energizes me.” And storytelling. “I can sell peanuts to an elephant,” he said. For his homilies, “I tell a lot of good stories. Sometimes I’ll read a poem. Some people say, ‘You talk too long.’ Others say, ‘I forget how long you’re talking once you get started.’ ”

Some of his best tales are those that trip off his tongue about death and dying. “I tease people about being morbid about death. Death is a wonderful experience. [Cardinal Joseph] Bernardin taught us this. I mean I’ve already got two feet in the grave. In my coffin I want a mirror right up to my neck, and a sign that reads: ‘Hey, how’re you doin’? Don’t forget you’re next.’ ”

He laughed at himself, and added, “I’ve got one other thing planned. I’ve told the funeral director -- put me in a boy’s coffin because I’m not that long. I’m only 5-foot-1 with my legs off.”

This day he had his legs on. And on them walked me to the door. Stumps an’ all.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000