(Fr. Ian Ker, photo by M. Jensen, 2008)
(Claude Ryan, Archives Le Devoir, 1975)
As Newman’s memorable assertion has it, we are “links in a chain, a bond of connection between persons”. This truth was manifested for me in what, retrospectively, I consider the providential way in which the Almighty steered me to my dissertation director, Fr. Ian Ker and then how this most English of Englishmen honoured my Canadian heritage.
I had taken a graduate course on Newman with a youthful Dr. David Hammond at Franciscan University (subsequently of Wheeling Jesuit College and High Point) in the summer of 1985 and sought his advice in 1997 regarding the question of under whom I should study. In turn, he gave me the phone number of the late, great Fr. John T. Ford of CUA – his dissertation director on imagination in the Grammar of Assent – whom he assured me was the expert on all things percolating in the world of Newman Studies.
Fr. John took my call, set me at ease and, after evaluating my circumstance of pursuing a PhD part-time through the Open University in the UK, said without hesitation: “For my money, Fr. Ian Ker is ideal, but he is between situations, so, Dr. Sheridan Gilley, at Durham in the north, is probably your best bet.” However, as the angels would have it, Fr. Ian Ker had just taken up the position of Director of Graduate Studies at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham. So, under his direction, I began my research PhD in Catholic Studies (1998-2004) writing on how Newman’s understanding of Christology and pneumatology shaped his fundamental vision of the Church (1828-1853), while working fulltime as a secondary school teacher of theology, English, and philosophy and living out my vocation as a husband and father of a growing family.
In 2001, Dr. Daniel Cere, inaugural Director and Professor of the Newman Institute of Catholic Studies at McGill University in Montréal, a gentleman whom I did not previously know, upon learning through the grapevine that I was studying under Ker, contacted me with an unusual request. His close friend, Mr. Claude Ryan (1925-2004), had been reading Newman for forty years and wished to dine with Fr. Ian in Oxford, discourse with him about all things Newman, and be afforded a guided tour of prominent Newman sites. Following his request, which he made seem as ordinary as taking cream in one’s coffee, he queried: did I know of Mr. Ryan? and, could I make it happen?
What Canadian of my age, even if he was an Ontario Anglophone, didn’t know of the Honourable Mr. Claude Ryan who was a Canadian of the first rank: chief editorialist of the most influential Québec newspaper of his day, Le Devoir, head of the Liberal Party of Québec during tumultuous times (1978-1982), and a minister holding prominent portfolios in the governments of Premiers Robert Bourassa (1985-1994), and Daniel Johnson (1994), as well as being a Companion of the Order of Canada (1995). As if this were not enough, federalists everywhere celebrated Ryan for leading the “No” forces to victory during the 1980 Referendum in the face of a surging wave of separatist sentiment. So, that my American friends may understand – Ryan’s hand personally tipped the scales to prevent the shattering of our federation, and the separation of 1/3 of our country, the Québec people, from Canada, a people who stand at the very foundation of our nation, and have had an outsized influence upon our culture, religion, and politics. Oh, did I neglect to mention that the family of my bride, Michèle, (née Aquin) called Lachine (a suburb of Montréal) home? Or that my mother-in-law’s family, the Lefebvres, date their arrival in Canada to one generation after Samuel de Champlain established Québec city in 1608? So, yes, check box number 1: I knew of Mr. Ryan!
But checking box number 2 seemed a tall order. Why? To borrow a metaphor from a friend of mine – he began doctoral studies in biology, the very year I began the same in theology – to be a fledgling doctoral student is, in many respects, to be a peon in the great feudal system of academia. In the wokeness of 2023, this is harder to grasp. But in 2000 it was so. Arranging for my director across the Atlantic to respond to academic requests (which Fr. Ian unfailingly did, though in a particularly ‘Ian-esque’ modality) drained the ‘social capital’ available in my graduate fund. That I could intrude upon and organize the great man’s personal itinerary seemed as likely as Fr. Ian saying that others could write English as well as the English, or that he liked being called Ian ‘Kerr”. But I had to try. So, I penned a letter outlining the above pleading for his help.
Once Fr. Ian was put in the know, he readily agreed to dine with Monsieur Ryan and arranged for the Sisters of the Work at the College in Littlemore to show him Newman sites in Oxford. That Ryan arrived in a chauffeured limousine supplied by the office of the Agent-general of Québec flying the white and blue provincial fleurs-de-lis speaks to the distinctive nature of that province in the Canadian federation. None of the other nine provinces or three territories have such a diplomatic presence in the UK. That Monsieur Ryan was accorded this privilege speaks to his place in the pantheon of French-Canadian greats. After the tour, Fr. Ian was a bit late for their dinner appointment and the Sisters entertained Monsieur Ryan while catechizing a rowdy group of Littlemore children.
The Sisters reported to me that Monsieur Ryan was a gracious man appreciative of their assistance. Fr. Ian said that he quite enjoyed their time together and thought the cultured Monsieur Ryan knowledgeable of Newman, even to the point of offering him to deliver a paper at a future conference. He ‘knew his Newman’, Fr. Ian said, which high compliment I rarely heard him utter. Later that year, the phone rang after dinner and to my surprise it was Monsieur Ryan to thank me for making a dream of his come true. We spoke of Newman, of being Catholic husbands, and the vocation of fatherhood. Now trust me when I say, I am not sure if I was more pleased by the fact that Ryan had called, or that I could now tell my French-Canadian in-laws and relatives (ever so casually) about this fact! A year later or so, Dr. Cere included me as a presenter at a conference in Montréal where I met Monsieur Ryan to our mutual delight.
The next time over the pond, I visited Fr. Ian’s rectory of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher Church at the top of ‘the Hill’ in Burford on the edge of the Cotswolds to discuss my latest dissertation chapter. I gifted him with a very fine bottle of Canadian whiskey. He smiled, recalled the fun he had had, and our meeting proceeded apace. A few years down the line, Fr. Ian invited me to dine as his guest. I think we ate Chinese. Prior to departing for the restaurant, he offered refreshments. I asked what he was having, and he said, white Chardonnay, and I asked if he had any whiskey. He returned, handed me a distinctive bottle of unopened Canadian whiskey (my bottle!!), and said unknowingly, “why don’t you have some of this – I hate the stuff!” I stifled a laugh, struck by the irony that I would, after all, be able to sample this nectar of the gods. We had a first-rate evening of conviviality, friendship, and faith.
In the years that have followed, this moment and the events that precipitated it, have risen before me as a sort of extended metaphor for Fr. Ian. He was as strong and precious as the whiskey he abhorred. Though sometimes injurious in unvarnished remarks, he told the truth for which he sacrificed much, especially, the truth as he grasped it (firmly and surely) concerning all things Newman. He quietly engaged in many generous and evangelical acts about which I could comment, but which I know he would prefer left unsaid. He loved feasting and conversation welcoming easily and equally Claude Ryan and Donald Graham to his table. However, I suspect his preferred conversation partner was our Lord based upon the times, I came to his rectory for direction, only to find him in Church alone in silent prayer before our eucharistic Lord. I pray (and trust) that Fr. Ian – who quested for truth, and loved friendship, feasting and conversation – will now be an invited guest to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and, perhaps, one day be drawn near to hear John Henry discourse about his Newman scholarship. Now wouldn’t that be fun! Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem!
Dr. Donald Graham, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, St. Augustine’s Seminary, Toronto