When Jared Bryson reflects on the work of Catholic Charities, he’s reminded of the Gospel story of the Road to Emmaus.
Days after the crucifixion, Jesus meets two of His followers on the road as they journey away from Jerusalem, despondent about His death. They don’t recognize Him, but as He explains the Scriptures, they feel their hearts burning within; finally, they recognize Him as He breaks bread. Although they didn’t realize it was Jesus while He was there, the disciples’ encounter with Jesus changed them.
“In our work at Catholic Charities, so often, we spend our times journeying with people all the way through their lives,” Bryson said. “I think about Pathways to Progress, where we really journey with people all the way through; there are those tiny glimpses in which Christ becomes present to all of us.”
Bryson, 46, assumes his role as president of Catholic Charities of St. Louis on June 6. He will succeed Theresa Ruzicka as head of the organization, which includes eight federated agencies: Cardinal Ritter Senior Services, Good Shepherd Children & Family Services, Marygrove, Queen of Peace Center, Saint Louis Counseling, Saint Martha’s Hall, St. Francis Community Services and St. Patrick Center.
Bryson comes to Catholic Charities after nearly 14 years with Mercy, where he served as system vice president for mission and Church relations. His focus on intentional encounters with Jesus was an important part of his work there, too.
“At our core, as a mission leader, is that we’re asking questions about: How does this ministry reflect our Catholic presence? How does Christ become present and real in this moment? What is the encounter we’re asking for?” Bryson said. “And not only is it transforming for those who entrust themselves to our care, is it transforming for us?”
Asking questions about the way that faith and works intertwine is not new to Bryson; in fact, he wrote his dissertation on contemplation and action, earning his doctoral degree in Christian spirituality from Washington Theological Union. Before his position at Mercy, Bryson served as a pastoral associate as SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, an adjunct instructor at Aquinas Institute of Theology and at the parish level as a youth minister at Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish in St. Charles.
“I’m passionate about evangelization,” Bryson said. “I’m passionate about the life of the Church.”
As he looks forward to leading Catholic Charities, Bryson knows he’s joining an organization with a long history of important work in the St. Louis region. Although St. Louis is blessed to have many nonprofits who work to serve those in need, Catholic Charities is set apart by its foundation, he said.
“What sets (Catholic Charities) apart is the why and the how we do it,” he said. “Why do we do it? We’re part of the evangelizing mission of the Church.”
“We don’t do charity because it’s a nice thing to do” he continued. “We do charity because at it’s core, ‘caritas,’ love — love is who God is. And because of who we are, and what we do, day after day, going to Mass and through the work of our communities, we’re growing greater in love. So we can’t help but do this, but take care of the poor.”
Bryson, a native of southern Illinois, has been a St. Louisan for the better part of 20 years. In addition to his work, he serves as Public Policy Committee chair of the Missouri Catholic Conference, Aquinas Institute of Theology Alumni Association chair and Marianist Retreat and Conference Center vice-chair. He and his wife, Emily, have three children: Augustine, 9; Lillian, 7; and William, 4. They are members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville.
Dr. Michael Meehan, executive director of Marygrove, has worked with Bryson previously on the Missouri Catholic Conference Public Policy Committee.
“He comes to his new position with an already deep understanding of the Church, mission integration and the issues facing faith-based institutions and systems in these troubling and divisive times,” Meehan said. “He also has a keen and unique understanding of how to lead and integrate complex systems and programs effectively, efficiently and with the ultimate goal of serving God’s people, particularly those at the economic and social margins.”
With his experience in so many areas and organizations throughout St. Louis, Bryson is excited to join Catholic Charities as the archdiocese continues its strategic pastoral planning process, All Things New, evaluating the best ways for all parts of the archdiocese to engage in evangelization.
“As I think about All Things New and the work of evangelization, Archbishop Rozanski is committed to having a Catholic presence in every square mile of the archdiocese,” he said. “I think the opportunity for Catholic Charities is to figure out, how do we help and become integral and essential in helping the archdiocese meet that commitment to a Catholic presence in every square mile? What are the new needs that are arising that we need to move toward? What are ways we might have to do that?”
Together with the rest of the archdiocese, Catholic Charities can help bring Jesus’ love and care to all through direct encounters with our neighbors, Bryson said.
“We do this as Church, all of us — not an agency over here, not an agency over there — all of us together,” he said.
‘The passion to serve’
As Theresa Ruzicka prepares to retire after eight years leading Catholic Charities of St. Louis and previously serving five years as a board member, she reflects on some of the best advice she received: start praying before your feet hit the floor in the morning.
“Before I ever get out of bed, the first thing I do is pray,” she said. “I know God helps me every day.”
Ruzicka, the first woman to serve as the organization’s president, is proud of the work Catholic Charities has done during her tenure. Pathways to Progress, a program with St. Francis Community Services that provides wraparound case management and support services to help individuals toward stability and long-term economic independence, launched in 2016. In 2019, St. Louis was chosen as one of the first five pilot sites for the Healthy Housing Initiative, a Catholic Charities USA program with the Catholic Health Association aimed at reducing chronic homelessness and connecting people with housing and health and social services.
In addition to big program launches, Ruzicka said she also worked to bring the eight agencies of Catholic Charities together to work more collaboratively in addressing the needs of the broader community. She saw the organization through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating the challenges of serving people in residential settings during lockdowns and setting up a special call center and distribution events to connect people with resources.
“I’m very proud of, and grateful to, our dedicated team members and volunteers across the Catholic Charities federation, especially our agency leaders and colleagues who stayed with it and kept helping our clients (during the pandemic),” she said.
Dr. Michael Meehan served with Ruzicka for several years as both executive director of Marygrove and his previous role as executive director of Good Shepherd Children & Family Services.
“Theresa came to approach the work with a deep sense of humility. She immersed herself in each of our ministries, and as a result, she became an incredibly passionate and knowledgeable advocate for all our ministries, and most especially for those we serve and stand with,” Meehan said. “I often say that the Holy Spirit uses this work to change our hearts for the better if we allow it, and I think Theresa definitely said ‘yes’ to this invitation. Catholic Charities is far better for having had the benefit of Theresa’s faith-filled leadership.”
Ruzicka looks forward to slowing down a bit in retirement: spending time with her husband, Ted, and extended family; volunteering; taking more time to read, travel and be outside. Her experiences at Catholic Charities will have a lasting impact on her, she said.
“What grew in me was the passion to serve,” she said. “I have been blessed to be in this ministry, to better understand the plight of some of our neighbors who through no fault of their own find themselves in very difficult circumstances. That’s where we’re really seeing that we’re brothers and sisters in Christ; we’re all God’s children, here to help each other, take care of each other.”