Marcos Breton

February 2, 2014

Marcos Breton: Upon retirement, Father James Murphy recalls a lifetime of helping others

I’ve known an Irish priest who kept the faith no matter what. I’ve sampled good wine with him at family dinners and watched him throw his head back and laugh as children asked if they could call him “Papa Murphy” – like the pizza chain.

Marcos Breton

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I’ve known an Irish priest who kept the faith no matter what. I’ve sampled good wine with him at family dinners and watched him throw his head back and laugh as children asked if they could call him “Papa Murphy” – like the pizza chain.

James Murphy, one of a vanishing breed of Irish priests in the state capital, loves to laugh.

It’s his secret. It’s why now, at 71, Murphy is at peace with retiring from administrative duties after 45 years with a Catholic Diocese of Sacramento that won’t be the same without his daily presence. His last day was Friday.

Laughter and humility achieved at the altar of enduring humanity have sustained him through a lifetime of service to Christ.

How do you maintain such faith without being worn down by human weakness? I wish I knew. I wish I had a little more Murphy in me.

This man has borne witness to the despair of souls in crisis who found comfort in his soothing Irish brogue.

Murphy has stood up before television cameras and answered painfully embarrassing questions when it was his job to speak for the diocese during the height of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal.

He’s walked with members of his flock during their darkest days. Once a woman at his church needed his steadying support as she summoned the courage to forgive the man who had murdered her daughter.

“On the way back in the car I asked her, ‘How did you do that?’ ” Murphy recalled. “She said if she didn’t, she never would have found any peace.”

I’ve heard Murphy tell this story many times and his look of wonder never changes when he considers the mystery of faith and the capacity for human kindness against all odds. We all aspire to such selflessness. Murphy has spent a lifetime trying to achieve it while accepting the limitations we all share. “I’m a sinner. We’re all sinners,” he said last week – his final as a working member of the Sacramento diocese.

It’s been through striving for meaning in life – a journey he began as a seminarian at age 19 – that Murphy has found peace. It’s been in the company of people seeking solace that Murphy has found solace. It’s been in the confessional that Murphy has drawn strength from helping ease the burdens of people moved to lay bare what was haunting them.

“When we do confessions at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, we have long lines and we’re just trying to get people through,” Murphy said. “It’s always that last guy, the one who has been away for 35 years. ... He comes in and he’s terrified. He’s just looking for a sense of peace. Frequently they cry.”

What brings Murphy joy in such painful encounters?

“That they come back.”

When Murphy said this, I thought of friends who’ve grown disillusioned with the church and left. I thought of colleagues in the media who have condemned the church in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. I thought of a church that often seems out of touch or weighted down by repressive inner politics.

All of those negative aspects of the church are true or can be true. But Murphy’s dedication to his mission has been no less true. A small minority of priests has caused great damage to an overall institution doing far more good than harm.

Some might call that a cop-out, but it’s really not.

Just as the human beings within the church failed, the human beings within the church try to do better.

“People criticize us when we don’t live up to our ideals,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes. We’ve been wrong.”

As he says this I realize that my expectation for a church devoid of politics and missteps is unrealistic. The man speaking to me from behind the collar is just a man. What counts is the life of the man.

It’s been Murphy’s calling to walk among people with an open heart.

He once ran the Catholic newspaper for the Sacramento diocese, and his desire for journalistic training took him to UC Berkeley during the heady days of protest and unrest in the early 1970s.

“When I walked down Telegraph Avenue I could smell the drugs,” he said with a smile. What did he – a young, traditional Irish priest – make of that whole scene of flower children and hippies and drug users?

“I loved it,” he said. “It was marvelous.”

Hasn’t it been a lonely life?

“Loneliness is a matter of personality. I’ve known married people who were profoundly lonely,” he said. “But with us, we are always around people.”

He retires as No. 2 in the diocese – the one in charge when Bishop Jaime Soto was away. A younger man will now perform those duties, though Murphy will continue to preach as needed throughout the diocese.

“That’s the fun part of the job. Doing Mass, weddings,” Murphy said. “In 45 years, I’ve met fantastic people who inspired me. (Churchgoers) look to us for inspiration, but sometimes they don’t realize how much they inspire us. They keep us going.”

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