Homily to Susan Ryan

As we gather here in the Lady Chapel at Newman College, people are gathered in socially distant numbers at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the state funeral of Susan Maree Ryan.

Susan was a good friend. At the funeral her partner Rory Sutton has just recalled Susan’s oft repeated irreverent boast to her sister Carly who is a Sister of Mercy.  Susan used claim that she knew more priests than did Carly, and she did.  She was a friend to many of us, and like all good friends, a challenging and forgiving one at that.  She was like Jesus in today’s gospel declaring, ‘Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky.  How is it you do not know how to interpret these times? Why not judge for yourselves what is right?’  Susan was a great interpreter of the times, and she always judged for herself what was right.

When the great Australian historian John Molony died, I was asked to provide a reflection on his Catholicism at his memorial service at the Australian National University.  I consulted Susan, and she responded, implicitly and humbly, saying just as much about herself as about John.  Gathered at the comrades’ regular lunch in Sydney, she said she was ‘happy to propose the toast to Molony, a very good bloke, important historian, and who when he was president of the ACT branch of the ALP, taught me how to chair a meeting!’

This was her reflection: ‘I knew John mainly through his ALP involvement, where his common sense, experience and deep social justice values meant he made an important contribution to the fledgling ACT ALP.  The branch was only made  autonomous, that is, given its freedom from  the NSW branch in the late 1960s or perhaps later. Membership was very politically diverse, old groupers, ex coms, the new and the threatening feminist movement of which I was chief protagonist!   Calm, sensible leadership was required. John gave that.’

She went on to say, ‘He was of course a giant in the history department at ANU… I have the impression he managed his Catholicism without antagonising colleagues and students who were hostile to the Church, as so many were.  He and Denise had four kids; they lived near me in Cook, a lovely family and John seems to have handled family life as well as he did everything else.  Whether his Catholicism enabled him to live such a long, productive and constructive life I could not say for sure, but maybe you could?’

At the funeral this morning, Monsignor Tony Doherty recalled the family’s insistence that the gospel reading be the Beatitudes which ‘recognise the dignity of the outsiders’.  Jesus’ Beatitudes pay tribute to ‘the bruised warriors of the rights of others’.  In her 1999 memoir Catching the Waves, Susan wrote: ‘Women and men should be judged on their merits, not on how far they reinforce some socially useful or commercially contrived norm.’

At the state funeral this morning, Rory has recalled the visit he and Susan made to Castledàwson, County Londonderry in  Northern Ireland, the birthplace of Seamus Heaney.  Rory recalled that Heaney, introducing his wife to his birthplace, wrote a poem entitled Scaffolding:

Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

Susan, with her engaging smile and ever-present glint in the eye, put up and took down many scaffolds during her life and built walls not of separation and exclusion but of invitation and inclusion.

One of my favourite memories was when she took me to a café in New York to see her son Ben, as poor as a church mouse, perform as a budding musician in his early days in the Big Apple.  Susan was so proud, and she was so happy to share her maternal delight with an Aussie mate there on the other side of the globe.

May she rest in peace.  We pray for Susan, for her children Ben and Justine, her partner Rory, and grandson Amir who is the apple of her eye.

The funeral can be viewed at https://www.pmc.gov.au/susan-ryan-funeral

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Frank Brennan AO is a Jesuit priest and Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute at Australian Catholic University and an Adjunct Professor at the Thomas More Law School at ACU.

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