Prayerful outpouring for a battler

Admirerers shore up an activist bishop grappling with cancer

June 18, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Bishop P. Francis Murphy has been fighting all his life.

He has been in the forefront on social justice issues, an outspoken advocate for the equality of women in the church and is nationally known for his stands on progressive causes, most recently denouncing the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia.

At 66, Murphy, the Catholic auxiliary bishop for Western Maryland, finds that he has so much that he still wants to do. But all that is on hold for the moment as he battles cancer.

Murphy is convalescing at the Cardinal Shehan Center at Stella Maris in Timonium, where he spends much of his time reading and responding to cards and letters -- some of them poster-sized -- from well-wishers who offer their thoughts and heartfelt prayers.

"I have a new appreciation of the power of my ministry," he said. "I was not aware of how I was affecting people in the way I evidently have."

Much of the correspondence has come from people involved in the church at a national level who met Murphy through his high-profile stands on behalf of peace, the poor and women.

"He's probably one of the two or three bishops among all of them who are the best friends of women in the church," said Sister Maureen Fiedler, national coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, a movement for church reform. "He's tried the hardest to understand the feelings and situation of women as they feel like second-class citizens in a church that denies them ordination."

"When we found out about [his illness] we issued an alert to our members so we could offer prayers to him," said Nancy Small, national coordinator for Pax Christi U.S.A., a Catholic peace organization. "It's very unfortunate and we're very much with him in spirit and prayer."

A greater response has come from members of the 45 parishes from Howard and Carroll to Garrett counties that Murphy has supervised for more than 20 years. They are what Murphy calls the "ordinary people, whose child I confirmed or whose parish I visited. Their care for me is overwhelming."

This weekend, parishioners at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cumberland will sign greetings and wishes for Murphy before and after Masses.

"He's a native son and he's been the vicar for this area for so long that people know him," said the Rev. Thomas Bevan, St. Patrick's pastor. "They're very concerned for his health and welfare, and certainly for him personally."

His admirers speak of him as a warm and genial man, but Murphy has not been afraid to take stands that are out of step with the church hierarchy.

`Paid prices'

Some say his unabashedly liberal positions have cost Murphy, who served as secretary to the late Cardinal Lawrence Joseph Shehan, a promising career in the church hierarchy. That would explain why he has never risen beyond the level of an auxiliary, or assistant bishop, to lead his own diocese.

"Frank, because he's been outspoken and because he's been supportive of women, he's been an auxiliary all his life," said the Rev. William R. Callahan, a Jesuit priest who is co-director of the Quixote Center, a progressive church group. "Frank has paid prices for the stands he's taken and for reaching out a caring hand to groups like gays and lesbians and women. But he's paid it graciously."

But others say that for Murphy, and the handful of bishops who share his views, history has passed them by.

"Bishop Murphy's role in the church in the United States was one that once seemed to be in the ascendancy, perhaps up through the early 1980s," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential conservative magazine First Things.

But the number and influence of the progressive bishops has waned, he said.

"I would not be surprised if Bishop Murphy would have some sense of melancholy about the direction that seems to be set for the Catholic Church in the future, especially under the leadership of John Paul II," he said. "But he has over the years raised questions that will continue to be of great importance for the life of the church."

First indication

Late last fall, Murphy had the first indication that his health was in jeopardy. He had little appetite and a distended stomach. Suspecting an intestinal blockage, doctors removed a small tumor in January, with 15 lymph nodes, three of them cancerous.

"They also did a CAT scan and discovered that the cancer had likely gone into the liver," Murphy said. "I was very frightened by that."

Murphy began chemotherapy in early March. He felt well enough to resume some of his work, and spent the Lenten season traveling to several churches performing confirmations. "Looking back I probably overdid it," he said.

Another CAT scan showed the chemotherapy had not been effective, and a new chemotherapy regimen was ordered last month. Murphy had a severe reaction to it and was hospitalized for a week. He was released June 1 and has been recovering at Stella Maris, a skilled nursing facility.

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