National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Msgr. Phillip Murnion
-- CNS
Msgr. Philip Murnion dies; promoted church dialogue, parish life


Msgr. Philip J. Murnion, a leading national figure in promoting church dialogue and in efforts to enhance parish ministries, died Aug. 19 in Calvary Hospital in Bronx, N.Y. He was 65.

Despite being diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year, he had continued to work regularly until several weeks before his death. In June he marked the 40th anniversary of his ordination.

Murnion’s priesthood was a microcosm of the changes in the church and in society that marked the 20th century: Two days after the New York native was ordained in 1963, Pope John XXIII died, the council he convoked designed to articulate a fresh vision for the church and the world it serves. Three months later, the new priest was on a bus to the nation’s capital, one of 200,000 people attending Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.

The son of immigrant parents from Northern Ireland, Murnion was introduced early on to peace and justice issues. He described himself as blessed by his first parish assignment, to a black parish in Harlem, where he had a hands-on experience of the U.S. civil rights and anti-poverty movements.

After the parish assignment, and a stint teaching at a Catholic high school on Staten Island, Murnion’s work took a new turn. He earned a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1971, and then served as founding director of the New York archdiocese’s office of pastoral research -- a precursor to his later hallmark work, the National Pastoral Life Center, which he founded in 1983. His sociology training, coupled with his organizational talents, set the stage for the numerous studies he would direct to help guide discussions and planning about the future of parish life and ministry, first in his own archdiocese and then nationally.

Murnion organized an annual program for new pastors, and about every six weeks he chaired the gatherings of priests and pastoral workers of New York’s Lower East Side. His respect for the views of laity and religious, as well as his fellow clergy, made him a much sought-after speaker.

“Nobody knows the church at the parish level in this country like Phil,” the late Msgr. Jack Egan, the dean of American urban ministry and one of Murnion’s mentors, told NCR in a 1996 interview.

Murnion’s work moved increasingly to national prominence. In 1978 he was tapped to head The Parish Project of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post he held until 1982. Meanwhile, in 1981, he was named director of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life. During those years he also found time for teaching, as adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame (1972-76), Fordham University (1978-88) and Boston College (1989-91).

The National Pastoral Life Center he founded with the bishops’ encouragement became a base of outreach to diocesan and parish workers across the country. With a support staff of about a dozen, Murnion carried out a program that included conducting conferences, providing consultation services and publishing.

As a sociologist, Murnion was drawn to forecast and analyze the effect change would have on the life of the parish, and by extension, on the entire U.S. church. He documented the shrinking numbers of priests and the burgeoning presence of women religious and laity in parish life. Murnion called on church leaders to recognize the shift that had already occurred, anticipate the likely trends of the future, and think together about how parishes could best be served in the new circumstances.

Murnion conducted two major studies for the U.S. bishops, both on the growing phenomenon of lay ministry in parishes. The first, “New Parish Ministers,” was published in 1992; the follow-up study, “Parishes and Parish Ministers,” was published in 1999.

As a priest who worked tirelessly to find a meeting point where people of different perspectives could minister effectively together, Murnion was the logical choice to continue the legacy of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, begun by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996.

Through it all, Murnion’s approach was never strident, but nonetheless passionate about the church’s need to understand and be ready to meet change. He coaxed and teased listeners to understand change, gently nudging their reflection to appropriate response. No better example of that can be given than his last letter, sent to all the bishops of the United States the day before he died. He issued a heartfelt plea for the bishops to urgently undertake and commit the church to listening to and dialoguing with their people (see excerpts below).

Murnion’s enthusiasm for dialogue with everyone was not confined to seminars or workshops. At the end of the day, he went home to the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men on Elizabeth Street. Murnion had been a board member of the center in 1974, and his love of this ministry and the people it served stayed with him throughout his life.

An author of 10 books and numerous articles, Murnion continually fed his deep interest in social justice issues, which he saw as a natural outflow of parish ministry.

“Phil Murnion was one of those rare people whose eyes are on the stars, and whose feet are firmly planted on the ground,” said Michael Miller, editor of Social Policy magazine, on learning of the priest’s death. “He was an idealist. He was deeply committed to justice. But he knew that the life of the institutional church and its people was ultimately expressed in the local parish, so he rooted himself and his work in the pastors who were crucial to making parishes real living communities.”

In May, Murnion was given the President’s Award of the National Federation of Priests Councils at their meeting in Kansas City, Kan. That was one of his final public appearances. Accepting that award, Murnion described love as the hallmark of an effective priest’s life and ministry. “I have found that typically those who are priests’ priests -- who look after their brother priests -- are also the best of people’s priests. Their love knows no borders.” Those knew him best said that with those words, Phil Murnion was describing himself.

This story includes material from Arthur Jones, NCR editor-at-large, and Catholic News Service.

Murnion’s final plea to bishops: ‘Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’

Two days before his death, Msgr. Philip J. Murnion sent a letter to all the bishops of the United States. Following are excerpts:

In his final public address on Oct. 24, 1996, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke these moving words: “A dying person does not have time for the peripheral or the accidental. He or she is drawn to the essential, the important -- yes, the eternal. And what is important, my friends, is that we find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith for which Jesus prayed so fervently on the night before he died. …

Now in God’s providence, I too write this reflection as a dying person, with no time for the peripheral or accidental. In many ways the crisis in the church and the ensuing polarization, which so preoccupied Cardinal Bernardin, have only grown more acute. Your own credibility and ability to guide God’s people have been severely compromised …

It is … time for bold initiatives. I do not presume to know all the dimensions of such undertakings. But of this I am convinced: They must emerge from the deepest discernment of God’s will and the widest consultation of God’s people.

In the mind of the pope (see Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Inuente, n. 45), there is no contradiction between legitimate authority and careful consultation … Consultation, listening and dialogue only enhance true authority, because they issue from a lived trust and they serve to increase trust. It is imperative that we work together to restore the trust that has been eroded.

If I were to sum up my final plea to you, it would be: “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!” I do not mean this as a facile or pious slogan, for I am only too aware of its cost and conditions. In his letter, the Holy Father advocates and advances a “theology and spirituality of communion,” for they “encourage a fruitful dialogue between pastors and faithful.” … Does not the living out of such a spirituality of communion require dialogue as its very life-breath: the dialogue of prayer with Jesus Christ, the dialogue of mutual building up on the part of the members of Christ?

A spirituality of communion and dialogue is as demanding in its asceticism as a spirituality of the desert or the cloister. Like them, it also requires its own appropriate structures. The Catholic tradition knows well that spirituality and structure are not opposed. Here, as elsewhere, it affirms the “both/and” of charism and institution, invisible grace and visible embodiment. Both are essential, though only one is eternal. We can ill afford to be less Catholic than the pope himself, who insists: “The spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the people of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul.”

For more than 20 years I have been blessed by working with many of you in different programs of the National Pastoral Life Center. I know from experience that many have sought diligently to consult and communicate with your priests and people alike. But in this time of crisis, of both possibility and peril, we face the urgent need imaginatively to expand present structures and to create new ones that will enable us to draw more effectively upon the rich wisdom of those baptized …

Permit me, then, with the last breaths the Spirit gives me to implore you: Do not be afraid to embrace this spirituality of communion, this “little way” of dialogue with one another, with your priests, with all God’s faithful. Doing so, you will touch not only the hearts of your brothers and sisters; you will draw closer to the very heart of Jesus, the Lord and brother of us all …

(Rev. Msgr.) Philip J. Murnion

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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