Whether in the pages of Perpetual Help magazine, operation of the Mission Church Press, or podcasting through Redemptorists.net, in the twentieth century Redemptorists often made their mark in the field of journalism. Rising above all others in this regard is Father Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., alias Xavier Rynne, whose journalistic talents and daring rank him on par with many leading religion writers of his era, including La Monde's Henri Fesquet, Time's Robert Blair Kaiser, or Il Messagero's Giancarlo Zizola. After a brief résumé of his life, this essay will examine Murphy's Vatican II journalism in three categories of writings: for the religious press, for secular publications, and the corpus of articles for The New Yorker. The latter appeared under his pen name of Xavier Rynne and were expanded into a series of books called Letters from Vatican City.1 As is well known, the pseudonymous [End Page 55] Rynne articles gave rise to widespread speculation about the author's identity, not least by displeased members of the Roman Curia. Lastly I take up a thorny problem resulting from Murphy's Vatican II publications, namely, the threats by superiors not only to curb his public communications on sensitive questions, but to bring a progressive voice to heel.
"F.X.": Encountering Celebrity in the Bronx and Beyond
From an early age, Murphy was outgoing without being cloying, street smart but polished—personal traits permitting him to cultivate high-level contacts in the American military, media agencies, Vatican dicasteries, and chanceries worldwide. He had a somewhat irregular boyhood. Born on June 26, 1914, he grew up in the Melrose section of the Bronx. His parents eloped from County Clare, Ireland, and arrived in the United States together in 1910 without benefit of marriage, at a time and in a place when such arrangements were the stuff of scandal. When it was learned that the two were unmarried, the extended family promptly dispatched the couple to St. Rita's Church for their overdue nuptials. Murphy's father Dennis was a New York cop, and his mother, Anna "Nano" Rynne, was a hotelier whose clientele included local politicos and sports legends. FX had two sisters, Patricia and Annabel, who survived him at his death in Annapolis on April 11, 2002.
His parents' experience of Irish invincibility, crookedness, and exposure to celebrity permeated the family's home life, as did the rather staid Catholicism of the South Bronx. FX had discerned a vocation in childhood and entered the Redemptorists' minor seminary at North East, Pennsylvania. On the eve of his profession in 1935, he wrote in a notebook that courage would be the true test of clerical zeal.2 "To be a success as a Religious," he wrote, "one must have 'courage': not the precipitate quality of throwing oneself into hazard without a moment's delay, but the persistent ability to face the facts and perform one's duty from day to day, no matter what the cost. And that is the genius of sanctity!"3
While studying at the Redemptorist major seminary at Mt. St. Alphonsus in Esopus, New York, he published his first scholarly article—an appreciation of St. Jerome's work.4 He was ordained in New York in 1940 and assigned to studies at The Catholic University of America, where he concentrated in medieval history under the direction of Martin R. P. McGuire, a prolific scholar and dean. In 1944, he completed a Ph.D. thesis on Rufinus of Acquilea.5 Shortly after its publication, Murphy was [End Page 56] assigned as chaplain to the United States Naval Academy midshipmen at St. Mary's Church, Annapolis, Maryland. After a few years of chaplaincy, he was recalled to teach at the Redemptorist seminary at Esopus, but he was almost immediately reassigned to Rome to assist in microfilming his order's archival holdings. The Roman experience would expand Murphy's understanding of the Church's interactions with civil society. In addition to the microfilming project, he simultaneously covered the Italian elections of 1948 for the...