Philip J. Murnion,R.I.P.

Monsignor Philip J. Murnion, R.I.P.

The death, on August 19, of Monsignor Philip J. Murnion at age sixty-five was a great loss to the Catholic Church in the United States. He was not only a leading scholar of parish life, but as director of the National Pastoral Life Center, which he founded in 1983, he worked tirelessly to pump rich blood into those basic units of the People of God

He and the center’s staff did this with an endless round of conferences, training programs, workshops, and publications. Those projects, listed in Church, the center’s award-winning quarterly magazine, include training programs for new pastors and parish ministers; conventions for parish priests and lay parish leaders; workshops on organizing and evaluating small Christian communities; books on priesthood, liturgy, moral theology, faith formation, and lay parish ministry; pamphlets with practical guidance on liturgical and catechetical matters; and monographs on specific issues for bishops and diocesan staff.

The center has conducted and collaborated on research projects. It serves as the institutional base for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative, organizing the Initiative’s own array of conferences and publications. It provides similar services for the Roundtable, an association of diocesan social-action directors.

That list of regular activities does not include the special consulting, speaking, evaluating, and planning that Msgr. Murnion (he was never comfortable with the Monsignor) and his staff did for individual dioceses, bishops, parishes, and other Catholic organizations. At his wake, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, spoke of the yearly assessments Phil and his co-workers organized and led for the people and priests there, and about the deep bond that had consequently grown between that Southwest, strongly Mexican-American, diocese and this New York priest, son of immigrants from Northern Ireland.

Our family met Phil over three decades ago. He was one of the remarkable priests living and laboring at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Manhattan. The fact that occasionally a homily would sound more like Talcott Parsons than Thomas Aquinas was the first clue that Phil was completing a doctorate in sociology at Columbia.

Years later Phil turned to my wife to launch and edit Church, which she did for five years (the journal is now edited by another former Commonweal staffer, Karen Sue Smith); and that led in the mid-1990s to extensive involvement in the genesis and fortunes of the Common Ground Initiative.

Over these many years, Phil retained all the makings of a movie priest: good looks, easy charm, quick humor. Phil could tease waitresses, help out a lost soul on the street, enjoy a good drink and a meal. Still, an extraordinary intelligence was always at work, absorbing and organizing information, analyzing group dynamics, using the tools of a sociologist, the understanding of a theologian, and the finesse of a highly attuned observer of human nature.

Philip Murnion was a master diagnostician of American Catholicism. His diagnostic skills grew out of the theological and sociological science he had studied and kept fresh by his constant reading. Yet diagnosis is an art as well as a science; it requires intuition, face-to-face encounters, and physical touch. In all his travels, talks, consulting, and personal relationships, Phil had his fingers directly on the pulse of American Catholicism.

“He knows more than any other one person about what is happening at every level and in every region of the Catholic Church in United States,” I wrote early this year in the acknowledgements of my recent book. This knowledge was put to the purpose of healing and enlivening the church, the body of Christ. Phil could have become an acclaimed academic. He could have established himself at any one of several Catholic campuses. Instead, he chose to stay in New York, where he was a deeply attached member of the presbyterate of New York and often cared for elderly or ailing fellow priests whom he otherwise hardly knew. And he chose to devote his talents and energy to addressing the grass-roots needs of the church.

A long struggle with cancer hardly seemed to slow those efforts. Those who knew the extent of the chemotherapy that Phil was undergoing marveled at his activities and his healthy appearance. “If only the tests showed that I was as good as I look,” he sometimes responded to the compliments. The tide turned in July, and he gave himself over to hospice care at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx as decisively as he had previously pursued treatment. When we visited him, various tubes slowed but did not restrict his speech. He said that he was at peace, trusting in the Lord, enormously grateful for his life, and moved by all the love he felt from and for those around him and all whom he had worked with. The conversation soon showed that he had lost none of his attentiveness to the nuts and bolts of church problems and opportunities, but now he was passing on these concerns to others. Family and friends used the word “transparent” to describe how Phil seemed to shed everything except giving and receiving love.

Over the past several years, I periodically met Phil for a cup of coffee or a bite of lunch. I always came with a list of questions about things like the state of the priesthood, parish planning for liturgy, or the growth of the lay Catholic ministry he had studied so extensively. I would leave with pages of jottings, elated by his observations and insights but also discouraged by the sense that I would never understand these matters as well as he did.

That was what I had in mind when I wrote in my acknowledgment, “He should have written this book, if he didn’t have better things to do.” I did not imagine that one of those better things would be dying such a good death. end

Published in the 2003-09-26 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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