NEWS FEATURE: Identity of Vatican II writer no longer secret

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Md. _ What the Rev. Francis X. Murphy liked to pretend was a great mystery is no longer.

The mystery was who is Xavier Rynne, the pseudonymous writer for the New Yorker magazine who created a sensation with his “Letters from Vatican City” during the Second Vatican Council, held in Rome from 1962 to 1965.

Although everyone who knew that Murphy’s mother’s maiden name was Rynne strongly suspected he was the writer, he has admitted it publicly only in recent years.

His “Letters” reported on the Roman Curia officials’ efforts to block Pope John XXIII’s reform-minded council, control Catholic scholarship around the world, and then control the council itself when they could not stop it.

Murphy’s reporting helped break the secrecy the curia officials apparently thought they could get 2,500 bishops and theologians at the council to maintain.

The Vatican, Murphy mused, prefers secrecy because secrets travel faster.

Now 83, Murphy _ who would like to be remembered “as a footnote in the history of the church in the modern age”_ was recently honored by the National Arts Club in New York, which gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award.

During an interview at the rectory of the Redemptorist Fathers’ St. Mary’s parish in Annapolis, Murphy quipped that “thanks to the council, my mother’s maiden name is known all over the world.”

After refusing to admit his authorship for so long, why is the Redemptorist priest now eager for it to be known?”I was afraid,” he replied, “that if I went to my grave without making it known, the damned Jesuits would have claimed it was one of theirs and the Redemptorists would have been just as happy.”

Murphy thinks his mother’s interest in New York politics may have stimulated his interest in Vatican intrigue. Anne Rynne Murphy worked as maitresse d’ at the Bronx Concourse Hotel and got to know the politicians who frequented the place.

Murphy’s father, Denis, a New York police officer, was not political, but also had a great influence by directing his son’s early education, sending him to the school of the Immaculate Conception, a German-American parish, which had a reputation for being academically tough.

After being taught by the Sisters of Christian Charity and the Christian Brothers, Murphy entered the high school seminary of the Redemptorist Fathers, who staffed the parish.

As a seminarian, Murphy developed an interest in early Christian writers and wrote an article on St. Jerome. He showed it to the rector and said he hoped to publish it. The rector replied, somewhat disapprovingly, “You’re very ambitious.” Nevertheless, Murphy sent it to the Paulist Fathers’ Catholic World magazine, received $40 _ then an excellent sum _ and encouragement to write more.

After ordination, he served as a parish priest in Annapolis and was chaplain of the Naval Academy, which is why he chose to retire to the Maryland capital.

After church history studies at Catholic University in Washington and service on the front lines as a chaplain during the Korean War, he found himself in Rome teaching early church moral theology.

There, his interest in Vatican intrigue blossomed.

As the ecumenical council approached _ Murphy quoted speculation that Pope John advanced the date every time conservative Vatican bureaucrats tried to delay it _ he began an article on the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administration and the preparations for the council.

Initially, he planned to publish in a Catholic magazine, but the piece became more ambitious. Back in the United States, he met John Chapin, a literary agent and convert to Catholicism who was translating Redemptorist works. Chapin introduced him to Robert Giroux of the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who, in turn, contacted William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker.

Shawn, it turned out, was interested in Murphy’s writing.

Murphy said although he considered the article’s contents mild, he and Giroux agreed the Vatican might not. So Murphy chose the pseudonym Xavier Rynne _ his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Murphy said 90 percent of the articles published under the Xavier Rynne byline were his work, although Giroux gave them literary pizzazz. Murphy also credits Chapin with much of the work on the books published under the pseudonym.

When the first article came out in the Oct. 20, 1962, New Yorker, it attracted wide attention. In Rome, the Rev. George Higgins, a prominent American priest, made copies at the U.S. embassy and distributed them to English-speaking bishops and theologians, according to Murphy.

When the Redemptorist superior general, the Rev. William Gaudreau, found out, he cautioned Murphy to remain anonymous: “Murph, you’re not Xavier Rynne. It could be very dangerous to be Xavier Rynne,” Murphy recalled Gaudreau saying.

As a theological adviser to a Redemptorist bishop, Murphy was able to attend all council sessions, giving him an insider’s knowledge of the proceedings.

Despite the controversy he caused, Murphy plays down the uniqueness of his accomplishment. Even under the initial secrecy, he said, one could learn a lot by going up and down in the Vatican elevators, attending embassy parties and reading Italian papers.

Later, briefings arranged by the American bishops became the major source of news for American reporters. Murphy also became a source.

A reporter for a small paper would buy him coffee, a reporter for a medium-sized paper would treat him to lunch and a reporter for a major paper would buy him dinner, Murphy said.

At one point, Murphy was called before Archbishop Pietra Parente, assessor of the Holy Office, once known as the Inquisition. Parente, who was referred to unflatteringly in the “Letters from Vatican City” _ as “a strange personality who has few friends and sees heresy everywhere” _ and in the Xavier Rynne books, asked Murphy to take an oath of secrecy.

The archbishop had a copy of a Xavier Rynne book. Murphy asked, “Do

you want me to take an oath about that book?” and said, “I’m not the author of that book.”

Murphy explained that he saw himself as author not of the books, but of the articles. Murphy said he used casuistry _ making subtle distinctions intended to mislead _ “which we were taught to do.”

Murphy got off the hook when Parente brought up that the book said he had been exiled from Rome under Pope Pius XI (for being too severe as rector of the Roman College). The archbishop then referred to Pius XI as “a little feeble-minded” or “crazy in the head,” according to Murphy.

Murphy told an American monsignor serving as secretary, “Write down that he said Pius XI was feeble-minded.” The archbishop, apparently worried he might get in trouble, walked out. Murphy was then free to go.

Murphy’s mother learned something was up through her son-in-law, Jim Taylor, who was in the construction business and did work for the New York Archdiocese. Once Taylor had lunch with Auxiliary Bishop Edwin B. Broderick of New York, who asked what his mother-in-law’s maiden name was.

The son-in-law told Mrs. Murphy a bishop had asked an unusual question. Mrs. Murphy immediately suspected something, and replied, “Damn that Frank. He’s in trouble again,” Murphy said.


Murphy’s Redemptorist superior general protected him. Once a bishop called the superior and said, “We know who it is. It’s your man Murphy. I have a copy of his baptismal certificate in front of me.” According to Murphy, the superior general replied, “Don’t you have degrees in canon law and civil law? In what court would that stand up? You’re harassing my man.”

Murphy noted the broad impact of the council, leading, as it did, to the vernacular rather than Latin employed in the Mass and other sacraments, a new emphasis upon Scripture study among Catholics, improved relations between the church and Jews, a boost to the Christian unity movement and the church’s general new new openness to the modern world.

“There was no other council like it,” Murphy said. “Even Trent, which was strung out (1545-63), didn’t have the tremendous significance of this council. It really tried to turn the church upside down and almost succeeded.”


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