Another luminary lost: F.X. Murphy dies at 87
By ARTHUR JONES
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 councils influence.
As one numbers now among the few Austrias Cardinal Franz Koenig and Americas Msgr. Frederick McManus, whose influences were lasting if less public, one is reminded again how immediate was Murphys 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 Vaticans inner workings, and candidly profiled its personalities -- it was revelatory to the point of being incendiary. Rynnes name and writings spread like wildfire.
Because his commentaries were not those of an obedient Redemptorist son, Murphy -- his middle name was Xavier, his mothers 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 couldnt 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 Murphys 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. Thats because as a teenage seminarian he was asked in class what a parenthesis was. And Murphy, with a feigned Brooklyn accent, replied, Its 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 masters and doctorate in medieval history; as a naval chaplain in Annapolis (at a time when St. Marys 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), Romes Redemptorist seminary.
Murphy was in Rome when the council opened and, just before it did, he submitted to The New Yorker a Vatican insiders account of what was underway and underfoot, as distinct from what was being officially announced and pronounced. At New Yorker editor William Shawns suggestion, the Redemptorist worked through an agent, who turned Murphys wry, if somewhat scholarly prose, into The New Yorkers 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 Murphys 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 Americas 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. Marys, Annapolis. For the next decade, he was spry enough, and lunch in a nearby restaurant was a feature for friends occasional visits. His Parkinsons 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, thered 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 its very difficult to figure this man out.
Figuring out Murphys 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002