Monsignor Canon Desmond O’Ryan
1916-1979 Died August 1979
Panegyric Preached in the Crypt of Westminster Cathedral on 3 October 1979 by Monsignor Gerard Sheehy, President
I imagine that when the Canon Law Society was founded in 1957 few of us who were involved at or about that time gave very much thought to the fact that our years of contribution to it would, at very best, be relatively few. We were too engrossed then in the launching of a new, and exciting, human project. But the death of Desmond O’Ryan on the 11th August last touched, in a peculiar way, the very life, as it were, of our Society. For all that we had anticipated it for so long, there was, when it occurred, the poignant feeling that one of our very own had gone from us, that a member of this family of ours had been taken from us. Immediately, with a remarkable spontaneity, there was the widespread wish that we should come together to offer together the Sacrifice of the Mass for a dear colleague and friend; the first time this had ever happened in the twenty-two years of our Society’s existence. This itself is a measure of the man.
Still more his measure – and our inspiration – was the manner of his leaving us. When we had our Annual Conference in Scotland more than two years ago – in May 1977 – we received the news of Desmond’s terminal illness. You will recall our having sent him a huge card, signed by everyone at the meeting, which we all felt then to be a valedictory prayer. His answer was to turn up at the following year’s Ilkley Conference in 1978, full of bounce, and dismissive of any reason for anxiety about himself! He was fine, he said, and back on the job. That he was very much back on the job, we knew to be true: from the ample evidence of his activity in the Tribunal at Portsmouth. That he was fine in health, we knew could not be true; and so did he – but he wasn’t going to worry us about that. So last November we asked him if he would present a paper at our Ilkley Conference in May of this year. His acceptance was immediate, and in the early months of this year he prepared it with a determination which totally belied his own recognition of the fact that his health was steadily and inexorably failing. In the event, he was unable to come this year to Ilkley to deliver that paper, but he made sure it was ready, and on time. Cyril Murtagh read it to us for him. So, once again, we sent him from Ilkley last May a message to assure him of our gratitude, of our support, and of our prayers. His answer, this time was the following letter to me:
[Monsignor O’Ryan’s funeral took place at St Joseph’s Church, Copnor Bridge, Portsmouth on 17 August 1979, celebrated by Archbishop Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool]
19 June 1979
“You letter of 23 May was most welcome and generous.
I am more than grateful for your prayers and good wishes – and those of all the brethren in the C.L.S. The telegram from Ilkley gave me real pleasure. I had so much looked forward to seeing you all there and joining in the discussions and chatter. In spite of your kind words, I am only too aware that my “paper” was a dreadfully amateurish thing.
My health continues to deteriorate and the doctors have told me that it’s just a matter of time; since they were mistaken two years back, they are a bit diffident about fixing a date, but that doesn’t shake their certitude. It’s their turn to be proven right! Should then my call come before you meet again, will you express to the members my delight and pride at having been in their company. You all know well that I’ve always known that my qualifications and expertise were not up to that of most, and it’s really only as a representative of the “simple country parish priest” that I was among you. Scant law, but common sense and, alas, worldly experience! Oremus pro invicem.
Yours ever in D.no.
That, surely, is the letter of a man of faith and courage and total resignation to the will of God. I received that letter on the 2nd August, only nine days before he died, though it had been written sometime earlier. I fulfil a sacred trust today in reading it to you.
Desmond O’Ryan was not a man who easily revealed himself. For the most part it was only by his fruits that one knew him. But I remember – as the five or six of us who were there at the time certainly will never forget – one occasion when he entertained us to a detailed history of a significant period of his life. Neither at the time, nor ever since, were we to know what prompted him to be so expansive on that occasion. It was at London Colney in, I think, 1975. We were working there on what, later emerged as the Statement on Jurisprudence. He gave us an enthralling description of what had happened to him when, as a layman, at the outbreak of war, he escaped on foot from France into Spain, and thence back to England, there to join, first one of the defence forces, and then the priesthood. He didn’t say so, but it was perfectly obvious to those of us who, frankly, spellbound, listened to him that evening, that it was in the priesthood he had at last found his goal.
The manner of his life since we have known him in the Society has proved just that; above all, the manner of his death. He was a true priest. As such he faced his death with a courage which was born of humility, and of unbounded confidence in his Lord. We are the better for his having been with us. May he rest in peace.
[Edited from CLSN 42, September 1979]