By LARRY ROHTER
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2001
During the 27 years he served as the Roman Catholic bishop here, James M. Ryan had to visit Rome periodically on church business. Reporting to Pope Paul VI one day in the early 1970's, he spread out a map of the 125,000 square miles of Amazon jungle under his jurisdiction and said, ''Holy Father, this is my diocese, the largest in the world.''
''Mamma mia!'' he remembers the Pope exclaiming in amazement. ''That's bigger than all of Italy.''
About to turn 89, Bishop Ryan uses a cane and a hearing aid these days and has been retired since 1985, so he does not get around that inhospitable domain as much as he once did. But after his nearly 60 years in the region, there is hardly a bend in the river that he does not know or a settlement that does not know him.
''He is a legendary personage in these parts, the last and perhaps greatest of the classic Amazon missionaries and the personification of a whole era in the region that has come to an end,'' said Manuel Dutra, a professor at the Federal University of Pará in Belém and the author of a book and numerous articles about life in the Amazon.
In his first years here, before motorboats were common or regular air service an alternative, Bishop Ryan, then a young American friar, had to paddle up the Amazon and its tributaries in a canoe. He had ten bouts with malaria in as many years, but dismisses them, saying ''around here, getting malaria is like coming down with a cold.''
Bishop Ryan recalls traveling a lot by boat to visit as many as 50 far-flung chapels. Most places could only be visited five times a year, with the result that when he arrived, he not only had to celebrate Mass, but also had to preside over weddings, baptisms and confirmations.
The bishop is the subject of innumerable stories, many stemming from his quick and sometimes salty tongue. There was the time during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, for example, that Gen. Ernesto Geisel, then the president of Brazil, visited Santarém and asked him, ''Reverend, how is your flock?''
''My flock is fine,'' Bishop Ryan replied, paused, and then pointedly asked, ''What about yours?''
General Geisel took the remark with good humor, but other military officers regarded Bishop Ryan as a threat. When an army colonel stationed here accused him of being at the service of a foreign power and hinted he should be expelled, Bishop Ryan's supporters circulated a petition, signed by 32,000 people, demanding that he be allowed to stay.
Hundreds of grateful doctors, judges, writers and engineers here got their start as altar boys or catechists under his tutelage. Bishop Ryan, universally known here as Dom Tiago, using the Portuguese title of respect, oversaw the building of clinics, churches, a seminary, a radio station and radio schools for remote communities in the interior, all of which added to his popularity.
''For decades, he was even the psychologist for the whole town,'' said Lúcio Flávio Pinto, editor of Amazon Agenda, the region's leading newsletter. ''People went to see him about every kind of problem, from personal to political.''
He was born in an Irish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and was teaching speech at a seminary in Illinois in 1943 when he and several other Franciscans from the Midwest were given the chance to come to Brazil. It took them a month to get here, and when they arrived, unable to speak Portuguese, they tried to make themselves understood in Latin.
Initially, he was assigned to Fordlandia, the Ford Company's rubber plantation on the Tapajós River. But the plantation managers would not allow him on the grounds, he said, arguing that it was private property. It took considerable ecclesiastical diplomacy back in Detroit to get them to relent.
He won over his parishioners when he preached in favor of their right to drink cachaça, a fiery sugar cane liquor that had been prohibited on the plantation. ''The Americans could have their Scotch,'' he said, ''but they wanted to legislate morality for those who could only afford to drink cachaça.
''That's Puritanism, and we had enough of that in the States.''
Ford left when the war ended, and over the years Bishop Ryan has seen one huge industrial or development project after another come to his diocese and fall short of expectations, including a proposed highway across the Amazon. That has left him skeptical of the outsize dreams and ambitions that the region seems to inspire.
''Everything takes a long time in the Amazon, and the first thing you have to learn is patience,'' he said. ''But everybody wants to get rich all of a sudden.''
Bishop Ryan, now the bishop emeritus here, tried briefly, on the advice of doctors, to live in a Chicago retirement home. But he discovered there that his heart and his home were irrevocably tied to the Amazon. Despite his weakening health, Bishop Ryan still broadcasts a weekly radio program here, offers family counseling, advises young seminarians and priests, drives a 1984 Volkswagen and tries to say Mass daily. His following is dwindling as the years pass, but it remains loyal.
''I try to attend Dom Tiago's Masses as often as I can because he is playful and warmhearted,'' said Maria Vivina da Silva Delgado, 77. In the simple room at the seminary where he now lives, Bishop Ryan has photographs of himself in full bishop's regalia with Pope John Paul II, taken about 20 years ago.
''Nobody in Santarém has ever seen me in those clothes,'' he said. ''I always liked to use a simple white cassock that you could just dip into the river if you got stuck out in the jungle, hang up to dry and in 20 minutes put back on again.''
''I've already told the people here that when I die, that is the outfit I want to be buried in,'' he added. ''I always loved it out in the interior, so it seems only right.''
Photos: James M. Ryan, bishop emeritus of Santarém, Brazil, gets a hug, above, from a 77-year-old parishioner, Maria Vivina da Silva Delgado. In the early 1980's he wore full bishop's regalia meeting with John Paul II. (Larry Rohter/The New York Times) Map of Brazil highlighting Santarém: The pope called the Santarém diocese bigger than all of Italy.