The Rev C. J. Ryan

Priest, Italian scholar and Dean of Chapel at King's College, Cambridge
Click to follow

Christopher John Ryan, Italian scholar and priest: born Clydebank, Dunbartonshire 31 October 1943; ordained Roman Catholic priest 1968; received into the Church of England 1986; Professor of Italian, Sussex University 1994-2002 (Emeritus); Dean of Chapel, King's College, Cambridge 2002-04; married Henrietta McBurney (two sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 20 February 2004.

C. J. Ryan became Dean of Chapel at King's College, Cambridge in October 2002. He brought to the task a wealth of talents, interests and sympathies, developed over many years in many fields, as priest, scholar, political thinker and student of Dante and Michelangelo.

Christopher Ryan rejoiced in this return to Cambridge, greatly relishing the prospect of both pastoral work and intellectual collaboration. He also viewed with intense pleasure the thought of bringing up his young family in an environment which he himself had always found to be particularly enriching. It is a matter of the utmost sadness that he had so short a time to realise his purposes and to pursue as fully as he intended the philosophical and theological implications of a career as dramatic, often, as it was varied.

Ryan was born in 1943 in Clydebank, Dunbartonshire, the youngest of seven children, son of a foreman engineer. In 1956, he followed an elder brother to St Mary's College, Blairs, outside Aberdeen, and - persisting in his vocation to the priesthood - considered himself fortunate to begin his studies at the Gregorian University of Rome in the year that the Second Vatican Council was opened.

He greatly valued the visual riches of Rome - though drily cautious of baroque excess - and spoke highly of the intellectual training he received there - though, again, he was less than satisfied with the historical and political perspectives that many of his teachers adopted. He was ordained in 1968, and, obtaining permission to combine his religious duties with further academic study, entered Glasgow University to read Politics and Italian.

By 1972 Ryan's attention had been drawn towards the poetry of Dante, in whose work he encountered a powerful synthesis of political, spiritual and literary interests, that anticipated many of the questions that had begun to exercise him most deeply. He entered St Edmund's House, Cambridge (now St Edmund's College) in 1972 and, working for his doctorate under the guidance of the great Dominican teacher Father Kenelm Foster, developed an emphasis in his reading of Dante which favoured Dante's elevated conception of human will and human reason.

Henceforth, those who shared this interpretation were always likely to consult Ryan for his assured and authoritative understanding of Dante's philosophy. In his own thinking, words such as "freedom", "choice" and "conscience" would touch the deepest chords of his intellectual attention. Few people faced at a college dinner with the mischievous suggestion (uttered by a philosopher of the highest eminence) that Dante's moral thinking was grossly repugnant, would have been capable of mustering a rebuttal as heart-felt, comprehensive and acerbic as Ryan's proved to be.

In the mid-Seventies, Ryan became Dean of St Edmund's House, where a fierce loyalty - and a fierce talent, as a disciplinarian, to defend the principles of the institutions to which he belonged - quickly became apparent. Between 1979 and 1986 he was associated with the Pontifical Institute of the University of Toronto. But here, while teaching courses on Dante and Medieval Thought and History, he began to question very profoundly certain aspects of the papal claim to authority. He was determined to remain faithful to his own priestly commitments. Yet his lengthy and clear-headed inspection of the ancient theological issue led him to believe that he could best observe his responsibilities as a member of the Anglican communion. In 1986 he was received into the Church of England by the then Bishop of Ely, Peter Walker, and was given permission to officiate the following year.

A period then began in which Ryan successfully established himself as a professional academic. Returning to Cambridge, he was elected to the Naden research studentship in Theology at St John's College and contributed to the teaching of the Italian Department. It was Sussex University, however - where between 1994 and 2002 he was Professor of Italian - that wisely realised how much Ryan could bring to the organisation and thrust of European Studies. He played an essential part in the life of the university - and used to recall with some satisfaction an affectionate description that portrayed him as the Sean Connery of the lecture circuit.

A particularly happy product of this period was Ryan's work on Michelangelo. By now, he was married to Henrietta McBurney, whose strength of mind and unfailing care had sustained him in the painful decisions of his Toronto years. Living in Windsor Castle, where Henrietta was Deputy Curator of the Royal Collection of Prints and Drawings, a treasury of Michelangelo's drawings lay open to Henrietta's expert eye and to Christopher's instinct for literary inquiry.

The outcome of this wonderful collaboration was a book on the life and works of Michelangelo (Poetry of Michelangelo: an introduction, 1998) and a volume translating the whole body of Michelangelo's frequently tormented and penitential verse (Michelangelo: the poems, 1996). The translations in particular stand as testimony to a sharpness of intellect and an unremitting exactitude in language which Ryan had first displayed with a translation of Dante's prose-work, the Convivio (The Banquet, 1989). Richly aware of the context in which any single word might be set, he was characteristically decisive and unfailingly honest in the renderings he offered.

Christopher Ryan, though in later years often the victim of serious illness, was always an electric presence in all the institutions he served with such enthusiasm and integrity. His brisk and purposeful stride, his sharp but always kindly eye, the Scottish cadences that gave even to his pronouncements in Italian an especial authority, combined in his personality with a keenness of mind that made any conversation with him an animating assault upon the merely obvious.

One remembers, too, the irrepressible delight he took in his family and how his references to "bucket-and-spade holidays" (recalling his own childhood memories of holidays in Ayrshire) would undistractingly punctuate his discussion of neo-Platonism or departmental politics. The savage onset of his final illness deprived his friends of a last opportunity to enjoy these enduring qualities and interrupted the valuable work that he was still engaged upon a month before his death.

He himself suggested what his legacy should be when he brought together in the epigraph to his final book the words of St John Fisher, Chancellor of Cambridge University and martyr - "Not that I condemn any other man's conscience; their conscience must save them and mine must save me" - and those of Bishop Mandell Creighton - "You know, I have almost a craze for liberty."

Robin Kirkpatrick