August 3, 2012

Father Francis Bryan celebrates 50 years of priestly ministry

In retirement, Father Francis “Frank” Bryan continues to make praying the Liturgy of the Hours a part of his life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

In retirement, Father Francis “Frank” Bryan continues to make praying the Liturgy of the Hours a part of his life. (Photo by John Shaughnessy) Click for a larger version.

(Editor’s note: Four archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2012. This week, we feature Father Francis “Frank” Bryan.)

By John Shaughnessy

It seems fitting that Father Francis “Frank” Bryan lives in a house that his family has owned for 107 years—just as it seems natural that the house opens to a backyard garden filled with trees, plants and flowers.

That blend of tradition and openness captures the essence of Father Bryan, who is celebrating 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese.

A longtime fan of classical music, the 75-year-old priest laughs as he confesses to “a late-life conversion” to country music, especially the songs of Willie Nelson.

A theology professor at Marian University in Indianapolis for 36 years whose knowledge of Scripture is extensive, Father Bryan was also the approachable, down-to-earth chaplain and counselor who many students confided in during times of need and doubt.

Diagnosed with cancer when he was 53, he endured 25 radiation treatments and weekly chemotherapy sessions for a year—a life-threatening, soul-searching time when he also committed to reading all the 38 plays of William Shakespeare as “a way of dealing with the chemo and the cancer.”

Then there is this quality of his priesthood. Father Bryan enjoyed his 12 years of seminary formation from 1950 to 1962 in the pre-Vatican II era, even offering a laughing assessment of the six years that he studied Latin and the four years he studied Greek. “I liked it. I wasn’t your normal kid.”

At the same time, when Vatican II opened a new era of the Church, he embraced the changes.

“He has a deep sense of how to live life,” says Andy Hohman, chairperson of Marian University’s theology and philosophy department. “He’s always had a deep love, respect and commitment to theology, but he doesn’t see it as just being an academic purpose. Theology is a way of talking about life for him, and about the way it was meant to enrich our lives.”

Dealing with the questions of life

While Father Bryan has thoughtfully considered the questions of life, it was a short series of abrupt questions from one of his teachers at the former Assumption School in Indianapolis that made him think seriously about becoming a priest.

“We were lined up on the sidewalk for church one day when I was in the eighth grade,” Father Bryan recalls. “Sister Sylvester took the collar of my coat and asked me, ‘Where do you plan to be next year? Have you ever thought about the priesthood?’ ” He laughs and adds, “I wonder if she hadn’t brought it up if it would have happened.”

His family was surprised that he wanted to start high school at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad in the fall of 1950, but his parents were always supportive. He completed 12 years of formation at the seminary then was ordained on May 6, 1962.

That day changed his life. The start of the Second Vatican Council in October of 1962 changed his life as a priest.

“It changed everything,” he says. “Celebrating Mass in English [instead of Latin] was the least of the changes. It was an exciting time to be in the Church. After about a year of the council, I felt I needed to go back to school. I went to [The] Catholic University [of America in Washington] for five summers. That really helped me. Our generation of clergy embraced Vatican II enthusiastically.”

That thirst for learning, especially in the study of Scripture, developed into a growing commitment to share his knowledge about the Catholic faith with students.

“I always thoroughly enjoyed teaching,” he says. “I never considered myself a theologian. I saw myself as someone who could comprehend what was going on theologically and bring it to the level of the group. It’s enjoyable when someone has an interest, a challenge or a question.”

The questions that students posed in class became more personal when they visited him as the college’s chaplain and as a counselor.

“They would stop by the office and talk,” notes Father Bryan, who retired in 2008. “They would sometimes come for confession or for faith issues. Sometimes it was about getting along with roommates or girlfriend or boyfriend situations. Or they’d be in deep trouble for something at school.”

The essence of life

His reputation for helping students at Marian was well-known, according to Hohman.

“Students perceived that he listened to them and heard them on a personal level,” Hohman says. “I think that quality came from his life not always being easy. So he’s sympathetic and empathetic. He’s someone who creates a space where you feel free to talk to him. And he’s able to hear your fear, your worry, your pain and your love.”

Father Bryan gives the credit for that approach to his spiritual director at the seminary.

“This priest was talking about confessions,” Father Bryan recalls. “He said, ‘One of the things you will discover in confessions is not the horrible things that people will confess. Instead, you will be struck by the goodness and holiness of people—the humility, the honesty and the efforts that people make to be near God.’

“He also stressed another thing. If you have a moral issue in which there are several responsible theological positions, you cannot oblige someone to the stricter.”

From those views, Father Bryan says he has always tried to live his priesthood through the example of Christ the Servant. Someone who lives for others. Someone who wants to bring them close to God. Someone who has known suffering.

Twenty-three years ago, Father Bryan suffered through his treatments for cancer. When he returned to work at Marian, a student newspaper reporter interviewed him, asking him if he had questioned God during that time.

“I said I never thought of it in terms of, ‘Why me, God?’ ” he recalls. “Then I told her, ‘If I come face to face with God someday, I may bring it up.’ I said it in a funny way.”

That blend of thoughtfulness and down-to-earth humor make Father Bryan a terrific friend, says Father David Lawler, who is also celebrating 50 years as a priest in the archdiocese.

“We met at Saint Meinrad,” Father Lawler says. “He was probably top of the class academically, and I was at the other end. Frank was really an excellent student and he’s introverted, but once you get him going he’s great company to be with. We have great conversations. He’s also quite the horticulturist. Working in the yard is clearly one of his hobbies.”

Just as being a priest is the essence of his life.

“I’m probably happiest when I’m functioning as a priest sacramentally or counseling and teaching,” Father Bryan says. “Even now when I go to a parish on the weekend to preach, celebrate Mass and hear confessions, I feel I have a reason to live. The priesthood has been everything to me.” †

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