As a Catholic in a small Ohio diocese, it is always interesting when our local Church shows up in the national news. This week, my bishop—the Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio—George Murry was elected as the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty. As such, he’ll be tasked with building up American Catholics’ understanding and defense of religious liberty. He’ll also be overseeing the work of empowering local bishops to improve their outreach on the issue.
Murry received this distinction in a tie-vote with Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. Murry, being the older prelate, won the tiebreaker and was given the chairmanship. Not only is this another victory in the long, bitter war between Ohio and Florida, but it is also a great honor for our diocese. I’ve always been a bit superstitious about tie votes— I think tie-breakers are often a sly spot for the Holy Spirit to do what He wants.
I’m a big Bishop Murry fan. So is one of my best and oldest friends. We have argued at various points in the past who is a bigger Murry fan. But since I have the keyboard and he doesn’t: it’s me. Murry’s resume is long and impressive, and I’m liable to talk too much about it. But I’ll try to be quick.
Bishop Murry was born in Camden, New Jersey. (I’m from New York, but there is no New Yorker or New Jerseyan in Christ.) Murry was raised as an African Episcopal Methodist until he came into full communion with the Church while a student at a parochial school in Baltimore. Murry is one of only eight active black bishops in the U.S. (a number so small it still shocks me) out of about 270 active prelates. (There are 13 living African American bishops out of around 430 total US bishops, counting those who have retired.) Murry is also a Jesuit, which means you just made a snap judgment about him one way or the other. (You totally did.)
Before being sent to govern our oddball Appalachian community in 2007, Murry was stationed in Chicago and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Chicago, as you may not know, is one of the biggest hubs of black American Catholicism. The Virgin Islands, being about three-quarters black or Afro-Caribbean, is another major center of black Catholicism. It would be an obvious understatement if I said that these places are quite different from the 80% white Mahoning County, the major population center of the diocese. (I didn’t look, but my guess is that that percentage grows dramatically outside of Youngstown itself.)
I pay a lot of attention to what my bishop says and does. There is something very beneficial about that. It’s one thing to look at the Bishop of Rome from afar—a great man that, when I’m being honest, I know I’ll never meet—and another to be able to sit down for a chat with the Bishop of Youngstown. The Pope’s ministry is invaluable, but my bishop’s ministry is meant particularly for me. Perhaps that’s why I get so nervous they’ll “promote” Murry out of here someday. I’m stingy with good clerics.
(If by some absurd chance the people who make those decisions are reading this, back off.)
There is a real personality to the local Church that so often gets overlooked. Your own bishop, after all, is your primary spiritual father. The bishop is the teacher and propagator of the Faith in the diocese. All ministries, all sacramental graces, in a very meaningful way originate with him. If you are blessed to have a bishop who offers talks or visits parishes often or— lucky dog— writes encyclicals, pay close attention. These are very real moments where Christ speaks to us in a particular way.
I’ve enjoyed the company of Bishop Murry a few times, but the most important was in 2017. It was Christmas Eve and, in honor of the parish’s 200th anniversary, Murry celebrated Midnight Mass for us at St. Philip Neri Church in Dungannon, Ohio. Old St. Philip’s was the first of our diocese’s many churches and they still have the preserved log cabin containing the rickety little dresser that served as our Catholic community’s first altar. It is no small phenomenon among many of the Catholics here. Some parishioners have even created a comprehensive history of the parish. (Don’t tell the others, but I haven’t read it yet.)
This was, to date, my only Christmas Mass with a bishop. Sure, I’d had plenty of Masses with bishops, archbishops—even a few cardinals, including Raymond Burke. Many of these were wonderful, pure moments of liturgical delight. But Midnight Mass in an ancient (for Americans) little parish church with my own bishop, while I sat in the front row? This one left them all behind.
The Mass was quiet, simple, and delicate. The liturgy was a beautiful welcome for a little child in a manger. Murry’s homily was mercifully short but no less full of that kerygmatic power that keeps me up late every Christmas Eve. Mass was finished in about an hour and a coffee hour downstairs was announced before the final blessing. As my wife, my friends, and I all got up to leave, I lumbered over to the local successor to the apostles as he greeted departing worshippers. I shook the Bishop’s hand and asked, “Are you staying for coffee, Your Excellency?” He thought he might. Figuring that Christmas Eve was an even longer night for a bishop than I knew it was for parish priests, I said, “If you decide to stay long, please feel free to join us.” That was that. I went downstairs, grabbed a cup of coffee, and thought of little else than which cookies I should eat first.
That’s what I did for the next ten minutes or so until Bishop Murry entered the little parish hall underneath St. Philip Neri, walked up to our table, and asked if there was still an open seat. We told him we were full up but could make an exception for bishops. He laughed and went to get his coffee, then sat down in the empty chair right next to me. For an hour, we had Bishop Murry to ourselves. We talked about what he liked and disliked about being a bishop, and what he did for Christmas. I mentioned that my good friend (the second-biggest Murry fan I mentioned earlier) and I sincerely appreciated his recent speeches on race and racism in the United States. He thanked us for listening to his talks.
But that was about all Murry let us ask. After the first few minutes, he shifted gears and pushed the focus onto us: Who were we? What did we do? What did we like? What were our hopes, dreams, goals? I had never had a bishop stop and ask me these sorts of questions. I’d never really had a bishop wait to hear my thoughts on anything. It was not how I expected the conversation to go. In retrospect, I laugh at myself for thinking Murry would’ve let it be anything else. He has never struck me as the kind of man that wants the conversation to center on him. Every time I’ve seen him in action, Bishop Murry is much more concerned with knowing about whoever else is in the room.
Back in 2015, Murry was asked for his take on the Synod of Bishops by America Magazine. I would like to share two of Murry’s quotes from this interview. During the brouhaha that would lead up to Amoris Laetitia, Murry was asked if he had any anxiety over the Church-wide discussion about the divorced and remarried. Clear-headed and open-hearted as ever, Murry exuded absolute confidence in the Holy Spirit. He neither discarded the vitality of Church doctrine nor shut the door on its future growth. I can hear his voice speaking when I read his answer:
I don’t share that anxiety. The pope has clearly stated, on more than one occasion, that Catholic doctrine is not going to change, and that it’s one of his responsibilities to maintain the integrity of doctrine. He and others have been talking about the issue of practice. Can we find ways to be more open, more receptive and more welcoming to people who don’t fit into standard categories? That’s the essence of the debate. . . . Those are the complicated questions which I just don’t think we can answer in three weeks.
When asked what he thought of the Pope’s repeated calls for a synodal, “listening” Church, Murry replied:
[The Pope] believes the Holy Spirit is active not only in the pope and the bishops but also in the people, and that, walking together, we can find the path that God has laid out for us. I thought his point yesterday is that we do need to trust each other and allow the Lord to guide us through the Spirit which lives in each one of us. (Emphasis mine.)
Imagine all the trouble we’d have saved if anybody had listened to that last line. I digress.
In 2018, the diocese announced that Bishop Murry was being treated for leukemia. That was a bad day. He happened to be diagnosed not long after my dad started treatment for his own cancer. I tell you, after those days, I don’t think St. Peregrine is ever going to forget the sound of my voice. Shortly thereafter, he resigned his position as USCCB Chair of the Committee on Catholic Education. In the months that followed, he was declared cancer-free, but then the diocese announced that his cancer had returned. Finally, last month, the Diocese of Youngstown announced that his cancer was once again in remission, opening the door for his return to the leadership of the U.S. bishops.
Congratulations to Bishop Murry, and best of luck in tasks new and old.
And, if I can be allowed just a bit more sentimentality: Your Excellency, thank you for your ministry. I give sincerest thanks to God for your recovery. Ad multos annos!