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  • Bishop P. Francis Murphy Proposes the Ordination of Women Priests
  • Christopher J. Kauffman

Bishop P. Francis Murphy's historic article in Commonweal of October 25, 1992, features his personal plea for the ordination of women priests.1 My article presents a summary of Baltimore Archbishop W. Donald Borders' 1977 pastoral letter, Women in the Church, Reflections on Women in the Mission and Ministry of the Church, which gained national attention for addressing a timely issue. After an account of Murphy's relationship with Borders, I then trace the former's development as the most outspoken U.S. bishop favoring the ordination of women and the support he received from priests, his fellow bishops, and women theologians. My article concludes with an account of his funeral (February 9, 1999) and posthumous testimonies of his legacy by notable friends.2

Philip Francis Murphy, known to family and friends as "Frank," was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on March 25, 1933. He studied at St. Charles College, Catonsville, Maryland, and St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, before attending the North American College in Rome, where he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1958. After earning the Licentiate of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, he returned to Baltimore in 1959 and was appointed assistant pastor of St. Bernardine's Parish. Two years later he was back in Rome when he was appointed assistant rector of the North American College. He recalled the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) with enthusiasm during his four years at the seminary. In 1965 Murphy became the priest secretary to Archbishop Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore (1961-1974), a period shaped by conciliar reforms and the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. In 1968, Shehan appointed him vice-chancellor of the archdiocese and three years later chancellor for [End Page 47] pastoral concerns and vicar for personnel.3 Archbishop Borders, ordained him an auxiliary bishop on January 10, 1976.4 For his coat of arms, Murphy chose the motto that is in a sense thematic of this article: "To listen to God speaking in human words." After his ordination as bishop, Murphy became vicar general and western vicar of the archdiocese.5

While Murphy was developing his own views on the role of women in the Church, Archbishop Borders, whose own archiepiscopal motto was "I listen that I may serve," (Auscultabo ut Serviam), published his 1977 pastoral letter noted above. Therein the archbishop expresses sympathy for the oft overlooked contributions of women, stating, "I think we men have been taking women for granted and have been only on the receiving end of women's concerns too long. This is true of the Church as well as in society."6 Borders then recognizes women's advances in social and political areas of society as having had a significant effect on the conversations within the Church. "If we speak of women apart from the mission and ministry of the whole Church, we fail both women and the people of God."7 He states, "Every faith community in each period of history must understand the mission of Christ, His message in relationship to its culture and age. Yet the Church must grow and therefore change."8 Vatican II opened new opportunities for lay participation in the liturgy that Pope Paul VI further articulated and implemented. Accordingly, the archbishop states, "Women may exercise the roles of reader and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. I plan to advocate strongly that women, as well as men, be installed in those ministries."9 If the Church is to continue to make a difference in the world, "women must enter into decision and policy-making, and find acceptable leadership roles within the Church." He notes that women's roles should be realized on councils and boards of the diocese as well as "national councils, international synods, liturgical commission, boards of education and similar policymaking bodies."10 [End Page 48]

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Bishop P. Francis Murphy

Conscious of his pastoral letter's originality, Borders asserts, "[the] Archdiocese should offer leadership in recognizing the need for women in ministry and attempt to heal some of the injustices in the...


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