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Bishop Murphy, ‘total mensch,’ fights cancer

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Two fifth grade boys stood in front of their grandfather’s coffin. A thin, white-haired man approached them, expressed his sympathy and introduced himself. Hearing the man’s name, one of the boys broke into a big smile and said: “How are you feeling, Bishop? We pray for you every day.”

Many people are praying for P. Francis Murphy, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. Since his cancer was announced in January, cards and letters have not stopped arriving, still filling at least a carton a month. And that doesn’t include the daily logs of phone and e-mail messages. These expressions of concern come from hundreds of bishops around the country, parish priests and religious communities, as well as children, parents of children that Murphy confirmed and others whose lives have been touched by his ministry. Some convey stories more than 35 years old.

The power of so much prayer on his behalf hit Murphy “like an avalanche.” For a man who had never been ill or spent a night in the hospital since having his tonsils removed as a child, the news that he had cancer and it had most likely spread to his liver was shocking. “It instantaneously alters your understanding of life and its meaning,” he said.

At first because of his sickness and pain, he said, he didn’t do much praying on his own, but “felt lifted up” by others’ prayers. “They took fear away from my heart,” he said. “It’s like people are not going to let anything happen to me. I was not aware my ministry was so significant.”

But it didn’t take a cancer diagnosis to prompt others to express their appreciation of that ministry. Before anyone knew cancer was in Murphy’s future, his friends celebrated the 40th ordination anniversary last December at St. Mary’s Seminary and University by presenting him with $120,000 for a fund in his name to continue his work for peace, social justice and charitable concerns.

Murphy, 66, talks about his life and ministry from the sunny living room of the waterfront apartment his friends rented for him near the hospital where he receives weekly chemotherapy treatments. They wanted to spare him the 35-minute commute to his home in Columbia, Md. They also gave him the healing view of Baltimore’s harbor and downtown skyline.

As Murphy, dressed in peach polo shirt, navy suspenders and tan pants, spoke about his anniversary and all the prayers, tears filled his eyes. “It shows the value of the priesthood for the church when it is faithfully lived. The acceptance of grace of that office has tremendous meaning for people, way beyond one’s human capacity.”

Those touched by Murphy’s grace see a man who preaches with his life. “Frank Murphy needs no words because he is a living gospel,” said Gerry Cavanaugh, a nursing home chaplain and friend for the last decade. “Some of us never make a journey between Christian belief and the imitation of Christ, but Frank Murphy has made that journey, and it’s very evident in his life, both before his illness and throughout his illness.”

Cavanaugh and others emphasize Murphy’s gift for listening, a gift the bishop acknowledged when he chose his motto: “To listen to God speaking in human words.” In Murphy, Cavanaugh sees “the face of Christ through the hierarchy of the church, and that’s a rarity as far as I’m concerned.”

Maybe that’s because being part of church hierarchy was never Murphy’s goal. Growing up in Cumberland, a small town in the mountains of western Maryland, he longed to be a parish priest. That dream was fulfilled in 1959 when he was appointed associate pastor at St. Bernadine’s parish in Baltimore, but it was short-lived. After only two years he was sent to Rome for the next four years as a faculty member of the North American College. In 1965 he left Rome for Baltimore to become secretary to Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. He was ordained bishop in 1976, having never again served as parish priest.

As bishop, Murphy has developed the pastoral side of his calling, but he also has become a passionate advocate for causes not always in line with church hierarchy. An event in 1970 spurred support for one of his most controversial concerns -- women’s ordination.

While dining with friends, he found himself explaining the discipline of celibacy, which called for avoiding friendships with women “since such relationships did not benefit my ministry nor allow me to be as free as possible for the good of the kingdom of God.” He was surprised when a woman in the group said she was “profoundly offended” because his remarks made her feel inferior. She resented being seen as a threat to his vocation rather than a potential colleague in the fulfillment of it. Her comments were a turning point in Murphy’s thinking.

“I began to analyze for the first time my attitudes, my tendency to stereotype women, my sexist language,” he said. “Eventually I began to consider more seriously the place of women in the church.”

Murphy remembers well the first time he brought up the women’s ordination issue at a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was spring of 1978 in Chicago, and he had just proposed forming a group to discuss the ordination question, sensing that the Vatican was not allowing the bishops freedom to address it. He had barely finished speaking when plaster from the ceiling broke loose and landed on several bishops. They weren’t hurt, and Murphy doesn’t remember if they were pro-ordination or anti-ordination bishops, but telling the story now makes him laugh.

No ceilings have fallen as a result of his words since then, literally or figuratively, but he has continued to speak out. In a 1980 speech, he used St. Paul’s thoughts on mutual needs within the body, that the eye cannot say to the hand: “I do not need you.”

“The more universal integration of women into the church is not an act of tolerance; it is an act of necessity,” Murphy said. “There is something missing when the voice or the presence of women is not impacting on the whole church.”

In 1982, along with four other bishops, he challenged the church’s patriarchal system. “This system has deeply and adversely influenced the church in its attitude toward women as reflected in its laws, theology and ministries.”

Murphy has called sexism a sin and relates it to racism. “In my lifetime, the church has evolved from an acceptance and practice of racism to a very clear position of condemnation of this evil,” he wrote in 1984. “Regarding the evil of sexism, we have not yet so clearly evolved in our awareness of this issue.”

In a 1992 essay, Murphy equated the issue of women’s ordination with the issue Paul raised with Peter, the admission of Gentiles into Christianity. “Women’s calls, as well as men’s, should be tested,” he said. “Justice demands it. The pastoral needs of the church require it.”

Through it all, Murphy has maintained that bishops need to balance their duty to church authority with their roles as pastors listening to their flocks. He says the key to this is dialogue.

“I look at my ministry through the lens of justice, the right order of relationships,” he said. “It’s like being a long-distance runner. As a bishop I’ve been speaking honestly, in the proper form, what the truth was. I’ve learned I’ve given people hope and I feel good about that part of my ministry.”

Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., credits Murphy with giving “outstanding leadership” to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He is always willing to speak up on sensitive issues, but he does so in a very gentle, loving way,” he said.

Sullivan said Murphy may be known nationally as a champion for women’s rights in the church, but he also is respected by fellow bishops for his pastoral leadership in the Baltimore archdiocese. “He’s a real people’s bishop,” he said.

For now, though, much of Murphy’s active ministry must wait. While not in serious pain, he occasionally has difficulty breathing and walking. His weekly chemotherapy treatments, which will continue for several months, leave him fatigued and unable to engage in much conversation for about 48 hours. His weight has dropped to 140 from 170. Because of his weakened immune system, planning ahead is pointless. He expected to have a pleasant visit with his sister at the beach in early July but ended up in bed with pneumonia.

“It’s a whole new way of looking at life for a very active public man to become a reclusive man,” Murphy said. “My hope is that I will return to a certain quality of life, but with cancer you never know when it will come back.”

According to Dr. Marvin J. Feldman, chief of the division of hematology and oncology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Murphy’s most recent CAT scan showed that the tumors in his liver had been reduced and in some cases eliminated. Feldman cautioned that because a tumor disappears, it doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer is gone -- it may mean cancer cells just can’t be seen by the scan. He said that Murphy’s cancer, which originated in the small bowel before moving to the liver, is fairly uncommon. Because each person responds differently to treatment, Feldman said he is unable to make any predictions about the bishop’s life expectancy.

Asked about the relationship between Murphy’s improved CAT scan and the outpouring of prayer on his behalf, Feldman said he couldn’t comment scientifically, but added that the influence of prayer is “definitely a possibility.”

“Personally I believe in the power of prayer,” Feldman said.

Murphy said he is resigned to the fact that his cancer can be diminished but not eliminated. Others take a different approach. The Baltimore Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy has included the healing of Murphy in their prayer for the beatification of their founder, Catherine McAuley.

The social justice crusader in Murphy looks forward to resuming work for Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, a group he founded in 1989 to build affordable housing, and to chairing a committee for Beyond the Boundaries, which connects parishes in the suburbs with churches in Baltimore’s inner city.

Murphy said he also wants to continue as board member of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian/Jewish Studies. Bernard Manekin, one of that organization’s founders, said it’s hard not to get enthusiastic about Murphy. “He is highly regarded, respected and admired by people in the Jewish community,” he said. “I’ve learned from him the unbelievable importance of faith. He is the total embodiment of what an individual should be. He is really a total mensch (admirable person), which is why he is so loved by people.”

Rabbi Mark Loeb, an institute trustee, said that Murphy has helped attract others to the organization. He credited Murphy with establishing seminars to educate priests and Catholic schoolteachers about ways church teaching contributed to the atmosphere that made the Holocaust possible. Knowing Murphy, Loeb said, has changed his perception of the Catholic church. The rabbi said he used to think Catholics accepted everything the pope said without question, but now he sees the Roman church as “a living organism struggling with different ideas.”

Fr. Arthur Valenzano, pastor of St. John Church in Westminster, Md., is one of 45 priests in Murphy’s western vicariate. He sees in Murphy a man of deep devotion to the church who treats everyone -- lay, vowed and ordained -- as coworkers, “all working for the kingdom of God.” Valenzano said Murphy never misses a priests’ meeting, which are held about six times a year, and he makes all committee meetings and church functions when his schedule allows, a practice he has tried to continue despite his cancer.

Valenzano recalled that after the bishop left a recent meeting early because of fatigue, the chairman expressed the sentiment of many. “Bishop Murphy is a national treasure,” he said. “I hope people realize it. Not just for us, but for the whole church.”

If you would like to send a message to Bishop P. Francis Murphy you may e-mail him at the following address: fmurphy@archbalt.org

We are sorry to inform you that Bishop Murphy passed away September 2, 1999. If you wish to send a message of condolence please contact his secretary Sr. Delores Todd at DTodd@archbalt.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999