As he descended the stairs at the priests’ residence at the North American Pontifical College near Rome’s Trevi Fountain on Monday, Fr. Ryan Ruiz sensed something was afoot.
Moments later, he knew the news rocking the Vatican soon would reverberate through the halls of his childhood parish, St. Mary Catholic Church in Urbana, and the Church of the Incarnation in Centerville, where he served as priest.
“My first reaction was muted,” Ruiz said in a Skype interview from the Casa Santa Maria. “It took me a little while to register the information.”
But as the days have passed and the date for the Conclave of Cardinals to select a new leader for the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics draws near, the excitement “is starting to build,” he said.
“Any time there’s a transition, a change, it can be sad or difficult,” Ruiz said. “But there’s always a sense of excitement, of new possibilities.”
The opportunity to watch the process unfold, attended by all its ritual, is something he never expected to witness, at least under these circumstances.
A son of Kathleen and the late Dr. Ulysses C. Ruiz, the 1999 graduate of Springfield’s Catholic Central High School was a priest at The Church of the Incarnation in Centerville when Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr sent him to Rome to study liturgical theology.
“It’s a study of the liturgy and the sacraments and the importance of the signs and gestures … to communicate Gods’ presence” to the faithful, Ruiz said.
This means not only getting a full appreciation for what bread, water, wine and oil mean in today’s context, but “seeing how each age has come to understand these rites, these rituals, these sacraments.”
In the second of two years working on a license that will allow him to teach at Mount St. Mary’s in Cincinnati, he expects to stay in Rome a few more years to earn the equivalent of a doctoral degree.
A deepening understanding of his faith is the context in which Ruiz is taking in the historic events as they unfold.
“Our faith is that the Holy Spirit is really guiding the Cardinals in electing the successor to St. Peter” as spiritual leader of the church, he said. “It’s our hope that the cardinals who are gathering are thinking with the mind of God in this situation” in a process that transcends “more than just politicking for high office.”
“I think what the cardinals are looking for in each other is a mix of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict (XVI),” Ruiz said.
John Paul II “redefined the papacy in the modern era” with his personal charisma, energy and connection with the faithful through extensive travel, Ruiz said. “He really elevated the papacy in many people’s eyes, not just among Catholics but throughout the world.”
In contrast, Ruiz said, during his eight years as pontiff, Benedict distinguished himself as a “gentle shepherd,” known for “his humility, an amazing theological mind” and “his ability to say hard truths in difficult times, at least from the Catholic perspective.”
“He didn’t shy away from being a guardian of Catholic teaching at a time when that’s in opposition” to prevailing values in other communities and cultures, Ruiz said.
A combination of the two styles is “the individual they’re going to be looking for,” said Ruiz. “But I’m not sure if one exists.”
Ruiz said fellow students who were in Rome for Benedict’s election have filled him in on the selection process. In turn, he has studied his schedule to see whether he’ll be able to break away from class to be available for the key announcements at St. Peter’s Square.
Ruiz said he believes “the church wants to avoid (abdication) becoming a habit for popes, because it does throw people into a tailspin.”
But Ruiz also said “one of the fruits” of Benedict’s announcement “could be that it gives a good model for how this could be done.”
By maintaining his regular schedule, Ruiz said, Benedict has been guiding the church through this process.
“His humility, his gentleness, his great love of the church and God is giving us a great example of what it’s really like to make a sacrifice of yourself for the sake of others,” he said.
Ruiz said the sense of a priest as being spiritual father to his community is one of the things that fascinated him about the priesthood when, as a child, he observed now Monsignor Tom Espelage at St. Mary.
“Watching the way he did Mass, seeing the effect he had on parishioners” and being in his presence at St. Mary School all were part of Ruiz’s religious education.
He described his upbringing as one in which “my parents always taught us that faith is an important part of life, but they weren’t domineering.”
While growing up, the idea of being a priest drifted away for a time, then returned when he was a junior at Catholic Central.
As a sophomore at Denison, he was at work on a major in religious studies “when I started to go to mass a couple of times a week” at St. Edward the Confessor parish in Granville.
Then as a junior at Denison, “I began the formal process of applying” for the priesthood, Ruiz said.
Serving three years as priest to Incarnation parish in Centerville, “I was really able to experience” the role of priest as spiritual father present in the life of the community, he said.
Before Archbishop Schnurr decided to send him to Rome, “I never really pictured myself as a teacher,” Ruiz said. “But I enjoy the studies” and “one of the great blessings of the studies in Rome” has been meeting the faithful from all over the world.
“I have the opportunity to encounter not only Italians, but other Europeans, people from Africa and Asia, a few Vietnamese and Chinese,” encounters he says have given him a greater sense of “the universality of the church.”
“It really is an education in and of itself just encountering all these people.”
The same has been true of the languages he’s been working, including Greek, Latin and French, and the language in which all courses are taught, Italian.
“I still lack some precision” in the language, but Ruiz said he’s learning, waiting now for historic events to unfold, and hoping he’ll be in St. Peter’s Square when the release of white smoke signals the naming of a new Pope.
“I think what the cardinals are looking for in each other is a mix of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict (XVI).”
— Rev. Ryan Ruiz