A taste for controversy and faith Priest wrote incognito about Vatican

April 06, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

To the Rev. Francis Xavier Murphy, religion "is like caviar."

"It's an acquired taste," says the retired Redemptorist priest.

Three decades after writing witty but controversial inside looks at Vatican Council II under an assumed name, he has lost none of his taste for the faith or for generating heated discussion.

"If Rome would calm down in demanding total agreement over the mysteries of the Christian religion," the church would have a better chance at achieving unity, he says, seating himself on a wine-colored leather couch in St. Mary's rectory in Annapolis.

Clutching a solid-wood cane topped by a golden horse's head, he joked, "Someone once commented that I was lucky to get the right end of it."

In his 78 years, Father Murphy has ruffled more than a few feathers as he made the journey from his home in the Bronx to the hallowed halls of the Vatican.

The most controversy was generated by his articles about the intrigue behind the preparation for Pope John XXIII's Vatican Council II from 1962 to 1965. The first essay, under the the name Xavier Rynne, appeared in The New Yorker the week the council opened.

An anonymous reviewer writing in a 1967 issue of Triumph, a Catholic periodical, warned that Xavier Rynne's efforts "are a positive danger to the soul."

"I have seen many very learned and pious Christians led into mortal sin by them," the critic wrote.

Father Murphy's accounts of the intrigue behind Vatican II are peppered with candid descriptions of key players.

He called one cardinal "the kind of man who forgot nothing he was taught, but since becoming a teacher himself, resisted learning anything more."

He quoted a bishop asking behind closed doors "how much longer" the church was to be "embarrassed by such 'relics' as Our Lady's milk and veil, St. Joseph's sandals, and the like."

He fixed on the irony of church leaders who insisted on using Latin during council debate but whose command of the language was mediocre. "It became ironically clear that Italian prelates were by no means as good Latinists as was commonly believed," he wrote, adding that they sounded like "stuttering chickadees."

Brazen stuff for a young priest. But in his 51 years as a clergyman, writing 20 books and dozens of articles, Father Murphy seems never to have lacked confidence.

Learned and charming, he is very much the politician, say some who know him -- able to maneuver people to suit his ends, knowing just how far he can push his luck without causing real trouble.

He survived a four-year inquisition by church officials who suspected him as the author, evading questions by what biographers Norman Shaifer and Marie F. Porter have called "a dextrous use of casuistry." In other words, he was cleverly evasive.

No one officially identified him as the author of the articles, but many suspected him. He now jests that if he doesn't acknowledge the work, he'll die and "the Redemptorists won't ++ take the credit, but the Jesuits will."

His style is provocative, but Father Murphy defends his faith as "the most valuable thing in life. The church continues to give people a feeling that they are created by Almighty God and can achieve a certain amount of joy for themselves, helping other people and looking forward to a future life."

To his friends, Father Murphy is the ideal clergyman, "the perfect priest," says Phoebe Berman, wife of the late Baltimore surgeon Edgar Berman. "He has tremendous understanding of human frailties; he's extremely kind."

Horse trainer Bill Boniface says Father Murphy is "the kind of man who is the same with the president as with the groom."

Mr. Boniface, who owns Bonita Farms in Darlington, knows Father Murphy as "sort of the farm chaplain" who likes to play the ponies but is "pretty much of a hunch player."

In some ways, he has lived his life by instinct.

At 14, Father Murphy chose the priesthood because "all of a sudden it seemed a good idea," he recalled. In his second year of seminary in New York, on a whim, he profiled St. Jerome as "the Irascible Hermit" for the Catholic World. Instead of the condemnation he expected, he earned the praise of the academic world for that article and a series on saints and church fathers that followed.

After earning master's and doctoral degrees at Catholic University, he became a chaplain at the Naval Academy.

Three years later, in 1948, he went to Rome to work with refugees and write for the Catholic News Service.

In 1951, he won a Bronze Star as a military chaplain in the Korean War, then served in Berlin and Paris before returning to a parish in the Bronx in 1958.

A year later, Father Murphy went to Rome to teach moral theology of the early church at the Academia Alfonsiana.

Soon after that, he invented the mysterious Xavier Rynne.

He later became rector of Holy Redeemer College in Washington, D.C.

He was a Woodrow Wilson scholar to Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities and taught at numerous colleges as a visiting professor.

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