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Another luminary lost: F.X. Murphy dies at 87


The April 11 death of Redemptorist Fr. Francis X. Murphy, 87, removes one more of the “final few” -- the last living luminaries of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The luminaries were those integral to shaping or extending the council’s influence.

As one numbers now among “the few” Austria’s Cardinal Franz Koenig and America’s Msgr. Frederick McManus, whose influences were lasting if less public, one is reminded again how immediate was Murphy’s impact -- as Xavier Rynne.

His story, these days, is well enough known.

As Vatican II opened in October 1962, there appeared in The New Yorker “Letter From Vatican City,” the first of 13 pseudonymous articles spread over the next four years of the council.

All were written by Xavier Rynne, whose identity was a secret, but not a particularly well-kept one.

Given that the “Letter” for the first time opened doors onto the Vatican’s inner workings, and candidly profiled its personalities -- it was revelatory to the point of being incendiary. Rynne’s name and writings spread like wildfire.

Because his commentaries were not those of an obedient Redemptorist son, Murphy -- his middle name was Xavier, his mother’s birth name was Rynne -- was obliged to deny his authorship more times a week than Peter denied Jesus in his entire life. Redemptorist superiors -- and others -- knew the exuberant scholar, Murphy, was their man, yet couldn’t prove it.

Years later, Murphy did admit the truth because, as he told Cardinal Pio Laghi, Vatican nuncio to the United States at that time, “If I died tomorrow, the Jesuits would claim [Rynne], and the Redemptorists would be delighted to get rid of him.” But by then Murphy’s authorship had been an accepted fact for more than a decade.

Francis X. Murphy was born in the Irish Bronx, son of immigrants. The son of a policeman and a hotel worker, he was a scholarly though merry boy who entered the Redemptorist Minor Seminary in 1928, took his Redemptorist vows in 1935 and was ordained in 1940.

He was gregarious, occasionally garrulous, reveled in the company of women as much as men and was a friend in need to a legion of friends. He was funny, and, when on a roll, a bit of a showoff -- though to great effect. And that started early.

Though later friends called him, “Frank,” and others referred to him as “F.X.,” to his intimates he was “Moiph.” That’s because as a teenage seminarian he was asked in class what a parenthesis was. And Murphy, with a feigned Brooklyn accent, replied, “It’s a woid wit a coive at the front and a coive at the back.” Hence, “Moiph.”

He added to his coterie at every step of his career -- friends made at the Catholic University of America, where he received his master’s and doctorate in medieval history; as a naval chaplain in Annapolis (at a time when St. Mary’s Parish, Annapolis, provided the chaplains); in Rome in the late 1940s for further studies; in war-torn Europe working for Catholic Relief Services; as an Army chaplain in Korea and elsewhere.

He doffed his military uniform in 1959 to teach moral theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and at the Accademia Alfonsiana (1959-71), Rome’s Redemptorist seminary.

Murphy was in Rome when the council opened and, just before it did, he submitted to The New Yorker a Vatican insider’s account of what was underway and underfoot, as distinct from what was being officially announced and pronounced. At New Yorker editor William Shawn’s suggestion, the Redemptorist worked through an agent, who turned Murphy’s wry, if somewhat scholarly prose, into The New Yorker’s witty, slightly detached style.

Once launched, Rynne-Murphy, a natural gatherer of information who loved feasts, friendships and gossip, set down with a sharp eye what he dispatched to The New Yorker. The articles appeared as a book in 1968, reprinted in 1999.

From Rome, he went to Princeton in the 1970s as a visiting professor, from there to the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies, then Johns Hopkins until 1975, at which point he was named rector of Holy Redeemer College in Washington, D.C., a residence for students, not an academic institution.

Those attending Murphy’s installation as rector included the officiating Washington Cardinal William Baum, which gave the meeting a certain piquancy.

Baum, as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, had lately castigated the Catholic Theological Society of America’s book, Human Sexuality. Murphy had just praised it in The Tablet of London as “an achievement that marks the arrival at maturity of the U.S. Theological Society.”

In 1985, Murphy retired to St. Mary’s, Annapolis. For the next decade, he was spry enough, and lunch in a nearby restaurant was a feature for friends’ occasional visits. His Parkinson’s disease advanced, and the last few trips out meant he relied heavily on his cane and a nearby supportive arm for assistance.

By the late ’90s, lunch with visitors was taken at the rectory. Afterward, on a bench outside, there’d be good conversation for, once the requisite revisiting of Vatican II was over, Murphy was at heart a historian. And a fine one. There was always plenty to learn from him.

Twenty-one years ago, NCR asked Murphy, “What happens to the church with 20 or more years of John Paul II?” The historian replied: “Well, Pius X (1903-14) drove the scholars underground. Maybe the repression forced a lot of scripture scholars, particularly, to come down on one side or the other. And they came down on the open-wide, scientific side. This pope is very astute,” he continued. “The curia as set up carries out his desires and designs because it is of a similar mind. He is strictly a conservative pope who follows from a theological viewpoint a very tight scholastic approach. Yet this pope has outreach. So it’s very difficult to figure this man out.”

Figuring out Murphy’s contribution is less difficult. An excellent scholar, he nonetheless prided himself on being eternally Rynne.

And had every reason to do so.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002