WASHINGTON –– It took some time and bouncing around between jobs for a few years in the 1970s, before Jesuit Fr. Peter F. Ryan realized that God was calling him to the priesthood.
Today, 26 years after ordination, Fr. Ryan is the new executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Canonical Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, effective Aug. 19. It's a behind-the-scenes position, one which staffs the bishops' Committee on Doctrine, vets USCCB statements and publications as necessary and occasionally peruses the work of theologians for adherence to long-standing Catholic doctrine.
Fr. Ryan, 61, said it took a spiritual awakening during a charismatic prayer meeting in college to get him to be more serious about his faith. Eventually he entered the Maryland province of the Jesuits.
He joins the USCCB after a distinguished academic career at Loyola College in Baltimore, Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. He is an expert in bioethical issues.
Tell me about your background.
I'm from Washington, D.C., one of eight children raised in a traditional Catholic family. I graduated from Loyola College in Baltimore, where I ended up teaching later on. But I don't imagine my high school or college professors would have imagined that I would be a priest much less doing what I'm doing.
Why do you say that?
I suppose I became more focused in academic work after I entered the Jesuits. In college I was studying political science and English literature, trying to find my way. I had a spiritual awakening between my junior year and senior year. I was much more intentional about my faith. I entered the Jesuits after three years of going from one job to another trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It took me a while to admit to myself that the Lord was calling me to enter the Jesuits and be a priest.
Then you entered academic life.
After getting my doctorate at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, I started teaching at Loyola College. I was there seven years when I heard from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. It was a wonderful 10 years there, teaching moral theology; doing formation advising, some external formation work with the men and also spiritual direction. But then it seemed like it was time for a change. So I went to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where my good friend, (Jesuit) Father John Horn, is the rector.
 What have you enjoyed about the priesthood?
It's meant a great deal to me to be able to celebrate Mass, preach the Gospel and hear confessions. The normal sacramental work of a priest has been a wonderful gift. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
I'm excited about being a priest and about the work I'm called to do. It's important for people to be able to hear the good news and have it properly explained. Sometimes people stumble when they hear what seems to be the bad news within the good news, certain teachings that are difficult teachings. If people can understand that morality is not based on arbitrary rules imposed from without by authority figures trying to cramp our style, but rather are gifts of truth about what it means to be human, what it means to be Christian, and when they understand what God has in store for those who love him and follow him wholeheartedly despite the cost, then people can get excited about it.
Salvation is not automatic. It's a great gift of the Lord's love for us, that he would become a man, that he would sacrifice himself and go through all the trouble, to understate it, that he went through on our behalf. We have to go through a little bit of trouble too. If people can see the point in doing that, understand what's being offered, how wonderful it is and that it isn't automatic, then maybe it can motivate people to be a part of this great enterprise of Catholicism.
How do you help people in the pews understand that?
No one little document is going to do that. Even all of the documents aren't going to do that. But it's one facet of an answer. I'm hoping to do a good job in reviewing the material the bishops' conference puts out. I hope it helps the bishops to present the faith in a way that's not just powerful but is something that people find themselves drawn to.
Whatever preaching that I do or giving scholarly talks on aspects of the faith, those I hope will begin to clarify some of the issues and maybe contribute to helping people understand why the church teaches as she does, that it's a teaching that arises from her love of Jesus, love of the Gospel and love of the people the Lord calls to be part of this.
What brought you to the USCCB?
This was a wonderful opportunity. As much as I was enjoying the work as director of spiritual formation (at Kenrick-Glennon), I was excited about getting into something that was more into the theological work that I had been in before. Making the contribution here, where I'm involved in serving the bishops with respect to doctrine, seemed to be pretty important.
In recent years, several high profile cases came before the secretariat. How would you handle concerns raised about the work of a particular theologian?
It's important to dialogue. It's very important to make sure there's communication going on. It's also important to make sure the faith is being handed on intact. I don't think it's helpful to charge in and do things without trying to communicate and understand and hear from people.
How do you see your role in the secretariat?
The bishops have a job they have to do. They need to hand off the faith intact. So they have an interest in making sure that that's done in dealing with matters that might be impeding that or sending the wrong message especially in texts.
Theologians also have a job to do, a job to explore the meaning of the faith. They should be doing it, of course. We all should, all of us theologians, in ways that are in concert with the faith that's been handed on to us.