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Fresh, vital happenings in parishes feed Murnion's hopes for the church

NCR Staff
New York

In these times of low morale and high stress among the clergy, when a priest like Philip J. Murnion is labeled a priest's priest, it matters who he is and where he came from.

That's because priestly formation is not something that happens only in seminaries.

For Murnion, a priest of the New York archdiocese, formation began in the 1950s, when his mother's landlord was increasing the rent.

Frances Canavan Murnion, a widow raising four children alone since the 1940s, had moved off welfare to part-time work at her Catholic parish. Later she would take a full-time job at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

But at this moment, the landlord wanted more money -- and that was critical.

The Bronx Irish tenants organized. The protest letter was typed, hunt-and-peck style, on the family's secondhand typewriter. In his mind's eye, the monsignor of today still sees that scene. He was the lad at the old Underwood keyboard. He can't remember whether the letter had the intended effect.

Today Murnion is involved in different sorts of projects. He travels the country on behalf of the National Pastoral Life Center, brainstorming with other priests and their pastoral staffs.

He has gained new prominence as the fulcrum of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, recently inaugurated with the encouragement of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (NCR Aug.23). The project has been criticized on the left by Fr. Richard McBrien and on the right by Mother Angelica's ETWN, The Wanderer and Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and John O'Connor of New York.

Murnion and Bernardin together conceived the idea of Catholic Common Ground, a program that sponsors public meetings where Catholics who disagree can talk. The hope is that constructive dialogue in "a renewed spirit of civility" will help to heal breaches over a variety of divisive issues.

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative grew out of a four-year conversation, a sort of Catholic intellectual swap meet, involving a dozen or so Catholics in an exchange of articles and ideas. Murnion agreed to find funds and provide staff to expand the work.

Murnion can mix with all kinds of people.

On an occasional evening, the soft-spoken, silver-haired priest blends in easily with Manhattan's Park Avenue cocktail crowd. By day, he might be found working alongside some of the nation's bishops.

But at day's end, he goes home to the red brick Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on the grubby divide where the littered Greenwich Village fades into the less salubrious but improving Bowery.

Where the heart is

If home is where the heart is, Murnion's heart for two decades has been in this Elizabeth Street residence, with its formidable streetside doors and locked steel screens. It is home, too, to the National Pastoral Life Center, which Murnion runs. The center, founded in 1983 to support pastoral ministers, is the offspring of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Parish Project of 1978-82.

Murnion's daily life isn't cardinals, cocktail crowds or even homeless men. It is other priests -- priests and their parishes.

For Murnion, somehow, everything focuses on the parish, whether he's in New York, or, as he was recently, in Fort Davis, Texas, 200 miles from El Paso, where he met with priests, sisters and lay pastoral workers from 12 parishes.

One major reason he's rarely despairing about the Catholic church, he said, is "I'm almost never with people who are cynical, who have given up.

"When the Lower East Side pastoral workers meet, we ask each parish what's happening," he said. "It always blows me away -- always something vital, hopeful, fresh. It builds up each other's confidence hearing all the hope."

The pastoral life center publishes the quarterly, 8,000-circulation Church magazine (Karen Sue Smith, editor). The center also organizes conferences (Sr. Donna Ciangio, coordinator), serves as consultant, produces focus packs for parish staff-generated activities, and center papers on topics such as diocesan reorganization.

For Murnion, parish is his life's work-in-progress. Even his reading is about parishes, lately William McGreevey's Parish Boundaries (University of Chicago Press) on race and parish life in urban areas.

His interest in parishes goes back to his early life in an era and in circumstances when the parish was the extension of the family. For him, that was St. John's in Kingsbridge, just below the Yonkers' border, where he worshiped with his parents, William and Frances, and his siblings, Bill, Rose Mary and John.

William, a former Ford factory foreman, was sexton at the parish until his death as a young man in 1941, when Philip was three. Oldest child Bill entered seminary, was ordained and later laicized. He and his wife have marked their 25th wedding anniversary. Rose Mary, a teacher, delayed college and career until her children were grown. John is a mystery writer, but even the family doesn't know his nom de plume. Frances died in 1989.

Studies in sociology

After Philip was ordained in 1963, he was sent to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem and told to look into courses at Columbia University. He decided on sociology, viewing it as a good underpinning to moral theology.

Malcolm X was on Harlem's streets in those years. Martin Luther King's March on Washington came two months after Murnion arrived. He rode to the march with a telephone worker, a black woman active in the Bronx Catholic Interracial Council.

"Her assertion that a black person presumes prejudice on meeting any white person I found outrageous," he recalled, "then gradually I came to understand why you must think that."

Murnion disliked his next assignment -- teaching English in Staten Island, N.Y. -- and was rescued when Columbia suggested he enroll full-time. This son of Bronx Irish immigrants displayed a capacity for organization and affability and, perhaps most important for the long term, dedication to the belief that if he didn't do it, it wouldn't get done.

Murnion's fellow priests spotted these capacities early.

Following the death of Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, in late 1967, a hardy core of archdiocesan priests wanted a stake in the selection of a pastoral successor but they weren't naming names.

"We hadn't anyone specific we were agreed on," said Fr. Neil Connolly, now a Lower East Side pastor.

The priests turned for help to junior colleague Murnion, ordained by Spellman only four years earlier and fresh from Columbia University with a PhD in sociology.

In their petition to Rome (which Rome ignored), the 500 priests -- more than a third of New York's clergy -- provided an outline of the archdiocese's challenges by the year 2000 and recommendations for coping with expected changes.

Early recommendations

Murnion wrote that outline, and his recommendations were widely circulated. Almost three decades later he can say, "most of them were adopted."

Thirty years later, too, the priests still turn to him.

He's served on both incarnations of their priests' council. He ran their pastoral life conference for several years and still acts as a consultant. He annually organizes a program for new pastors. About every six weeks, he chairs the gatherings of New York's Lower East Side priests and pastoral workers.

"Nobody knows the church at the parish level in this country like Phil," said Jack Egan, the Chicago monsignor who gave urban ministry its Catholic household name in the 1960s by forming the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry. "And if there was any justice, Phil would be the archbishop of New York."

Egan became Murnion's mentor during his student days, when the younger priest was living at St. Gregory the Great parish while studying. Its pastor, Fr. J. Henry "Harry" Brown was on the newly forming board of the urban ministry group and invited Murnion to its meetings at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

Egan recalls that everyone was keen to have Murnion there because he was great at summarizing what had been discussed. Later Murnion headed the urban ministry committee and brought other New York priests, including his pal, Connolly, onto the board.

Most Bronx Irish of Murnion's generation have the gift of gab, but Murnion had to work at his.

"It was an excruciating experience," he said of his early days in urban ministry, when he was expected to travel around the country and talk -- "excruciating because I'm an introvert. Meeting new crowds of people was very painful."

But gradually, as he learned to relax, tell stories and use humor -- the stuff of his heritage -- it got easier, he said.

Some people, he admits, are turned off because he sometimes tends to argue his points too strongly, ranges widely over so many topics or seems to have an awful lot of freedom to do what he enjoys. He's seen as "feisty," "sophisticated," "a problem-solver, "an engineer," inclined toward "anger but not temper" over what he considers "inefficiency." He is also impatient when people are "reluctant to resolve problems that could be resolved." He's said to have "compassion and a passion for people who get hurt by things." Yet he thinks of himself as "naive, not coldly analytical, because I expect things to be better than they are."

These days, Murnion is in demand as a speaker and as a funeral homilist.

Priests listen to him, but how does "a priest's priest" view his colleagues? "I think that they're reasonably effective and open to constructive ideas," Murnion said. "Sometimes they feel there's a lack of direction for what they're doing -- 'this may all be good but where's this going?'"

Perhaps more than a vision, what they often lack is "a sense of priorities," he said, given "all the things coming at them from the diocese."

Support groups

Priests also become frustrated when they don't see how projects coordinate at the diocesan level, he said. They want to know, "are we fitting all this pastoral ministry together in some coherent way?"

"More priests these days are finding themselves in groups that support and strengthen one another," Murnion said. "Once they used to get together to play cards; now they get together to pray."

What keeps most of them going, Murnion said, is celebrating the sacraments. They "feel most like priests" when they're celebrating the Eucharist or, some say, the sacrament of reconciliation.

Murnion's own prayer life has shifted to the early morning, the day's scriptures, readings from a booklet titled "Experiencing Jesus." He thinks of God as "a person who's relationship to me is a demanding embrace. This is somebody who loves me, and the love requires me to do something in return."

And God is also connected to the father who died young. In their prayers, the four young children would ask, "Lord have mercy on Daddy. And Daddy dear, please pray for us."

"Parental images have a lot to do with your image of God," said Murnion, who sees God as "somebody whose love is assured but whose expectations are high."

"But father had a responsibility for us, too," he said. Frances Canavan Murnion saw to that.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 1996