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For the bishop, a fittingly lighthearted yet provocative sendoff

Bishop P. Francis Murphy was, as his rabbi friend described him recently, a total mensch, an admirable man with a fundamental decency that radiated through everything he did (NCR, Aug. 27).

One might posit that the Yiddish sensibility that gave us the term would certainly not equate those characteristics with a pushover. So, total mensch he may have been, but unafraid at the same time to keep in step -- even though his membership in the hierarchy may have tugged him in other directions -- with his intellect and his conscience. He could raise difficult issues with his brother bishops in a way that often provoked thought without threatening others or deepening divisions.

It is fitting, then, that some of the issues he championed should, in that same good-natured fashion, make their way into the service where his friends -- members of the hierarchy, priest friends and hundreds of lay people, many of whom feel marginalized in so many ways and call him their champion -- gathered for a final goodbye.

The late bishop’s friend and eulogist Fr. Robert F. Leavitt, according to press accounts and numerous explanations of the service that made the Internet rounds, at one point explained Murphy’s dedication to the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its wide-ranging reforms. “Not one or two, but many generations will be required to absorb and apply its vision and teaching. Frank Murphy, my friends, belongs to that first, courageous, bold and energetic generation.”

The crowd at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore began to applaud. And then, as those who attended the Sept. 8 funeral Mass tell it, people in the back began rising, and, like a wave, others rose until the whole congregation was on its feet, still clapping. And they continued clapping until, finally, Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore and celebrant, along with Cardinal James Hickey of Washington and visiting cardinals Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Douala, Cameroon, and William W. Baum, head of a Vatican office, and the 25 bishops who concelebrated also stood. Then the cathedral really exploded in cheers and even louder applause.

Later in the eulogy, there was a second explosion of cheering and another standing ovation (though this time not by the men in red around the altar, according to some present) when Leavitt mentioned Murphy’s long advocacy for “the dignity and participation of women in the church.” Murphy was unyielding in his support for women’s ordination, even in an era when many bishops refrain from making any favorable comment on the issue in public for fear of reaction from the far right and discipline by the Vatican.

Perhaps Murphy got away with it because that conviction grew from a life that was unquestionably loyal to the church and so thoroughly dedicated to a pastoral mission. He was, as so many said in so many ways, “a real people’s bishop.”

He showed that questioning tradition did not equate with being disloyal but is, in fact, an important function for members of the church.

Anyway, he got a chance, indirectly, to make his point one last time. Not bad for a total mensch -- with a steely, if low profile prophetic edge.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999