William Murphy, Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. (Sept....

William Murphy, Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. (Sept. 4, 2002) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Bishop William F. Murphy, with an eye on his final years leading Long Island's Roman Catholics, is pushing forward with a mission to reshape his diocese and forge a final legacy.

The 71-year-old bishop is ebullient about the centerpiece of his agenda -- an evangelical strategy to grow the church by bringing more of the faithful back to the pews.

During his 10 years heading the nation's fifth-largest diocese, Murphy has had to cope with the consequences of declining church attendance. He has demanded fiscal discipline from parishes and overseen school closings, with more in the works. But the bishop sees a path to grow the ranks of the faithful, inspiring those who have remained close to the church to recruit those who have not.

"I don't think I have a retrenchment mentality or a defensive mentality," Murphy said. "I preach the Word and I do my best to do that," he said in a rare interview.

Murphy spoke for 50 minutes in a small, plain chapel on the first floor of the diocese headquarters in Rockville Centre. Seated in one of two cushioned chairs in the Spartan room, he discussed his aspirations and the controversies -- often centered on his leadership style -- that have marked his time here.

He seemed upbeat and laughed easily, sometimes leaning forward or clenching his fists to make a point in a voice that bears inflections from his Boston upbringing.

"For me personally, it's been great," he said of leading Nassau and Suffolk's 1.7 million Roman Catholics. "I came to Rockville Centre not knowing anyone. . . . The fact is it's been a wonderful experience of God's grace."

Murphy pointed to accomplishments such as outreach efforts to Long Island's Muslim community and his international role in building ties between Catholics and Jews.

He reaffirmed the church's opposition to New York State's legalization of same-sex marriage, saying it should be rescinded, but added that the church's doors remain open to all. "We're human beings. We pastor everyone," he said.

The spiritual leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre's 134 parishes has earned a legion of followers since arriving from the Archdiocese of Boston in 2001, six days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

But there are critics, too, who say the bishop has ruled with an iron hand and sought to squelch dissent.

Murphy makes no apologies.

"Probably there's a little bit of truth, a little bit of error in all of that," he said. "I don't see myself as being a tough guy. The prayer of the bishops says you should be a firm but gentle shepherd. Maybe sometimes I haven't been as gentle as I should have been, but I don't think so.

"I think I'm a pussycat. I'm a pushover, really."

'New evangelization'

The Irish charm that is Murphy's birthright was on display as parishioners filed out of St. Agnes Cathedral after a memorial Mass marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

"Good morning, dear!" Murphy called to an elderly woman as she slowly made her way down the cathedral steps. "How are you? Step by step. Don't go quick. We need you."

Murphy said he expects to remain here until his retirement around age 75, and to be anything but a caretaker bishop. He has ambitious plans in a diocese that, with 19,800 employees including school and hospital workers, is the second largest nongovernmental employer on Long Island.

One top initiative will be a "new evangelization" to bring more Catholics back to church. He hopes it will be sparked by a new English translation of the Mass Missal being introduced nationwide this fall -- the first new version since the 1970s -- which is intended to be more faithful to the original Latin used for centuries to celebrate Mass.

"The people of God . . . when they get to know and hear the new translation, I think it's going to grab them a little bit -- and it should," Murphy said. "My prayer is that's going to be a moment in which the people who are shepherds, the people who come every Sunday and do all those good things in our parish, they will be energized to become evangelizers."

The next phase kicks in next year, he said, "when we start to organize our forces, of the people who come all the time, to say to their neighbors, to their friends, to their relatives, why don't you come to Mass? There's something really good going on."

If the plan works, it could help with another priority: pulling more parishes out of the red. Murphy said with satisfaction that the number of parishes running deficits is down to 24 from 83 two years ago. He has ordered parishes to balance budgets, and sent in experts from diocesan headquarters to put modern accounting methods and strict cost controls in place.

Many of the financial problems were a result of the recession and declining Mass attendance. Donations stayed flat as costs rose. "Some of those [parishes] have real tough challenges, but we're working with them," he said.

A reorganization blueprint for Catholic schools is expected in January. Murphy said he hopes it will make the school system stronger, but declining enrollment numbers will inevitably force some closings and consolidations.

The bishop also is weighing a shift at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. Starting next year, seminarians could be sent to St. Joseph's Seminary, also known as Dunwoodie, in Yonkers, leaving the Huntington facility as a pastoral training center for ordained priests and lay people.

Rifts within church

Most Wednesday mornings, Murphy holds a "cabinet meeting" with his top advisers, including priests, nuns and lay men and women.

"It's a good cross-section," Murphy said. "They take so much off my back. And they take so much responsibility in their own field. That's how the nitty-gritty gets done."

Murphy can be a tough taskmaster who knows what he wants, said the Rev. Edward Kealey, former pastor of St. Sylvester's Church in Medford, who has clashed with him.

"He's very open to people saying whatever it is they feel they want to say," Kealey said. But "he sometimes has a very definite point that he wants to get across, and he'll keep hammering at it."

Murphy has faced rifts within the church since arriving on Long Island.

Early in 2002, the priest sexual abuse scandal broke open in Boston, where he had served as the No. 2 official under Cardinal Bernard Law.

Murphy's responses there and on Long Island drew scrutiny from victims' advocates, including the Voice of the Faithful, who say the bishop won't enter a full dialogue with them.

Murphy heard complaints in public listening sessions about $1 million spent to refurbish his new living quarters. Fifty-two of the diocese's priests wrote a letter expressing lack of confidence in his leadership in 2003.

Kealey, who retired in June from St. Sylvester's, took the unusual step last year of distributing a letter to his parishioners publicly taking issue with Murphy for imposing a job-cutting fiscal discipline plan.

"He's very concerned about his own authority. . . . He just hasn't been able to get beyond his own conception of what a bishop should be doing: Bishops should be in control," Kealey said.

To his admirers, Murphy has defended traditional Catholic values while making tough but necessary financial decisions.

"It's a rough world out there, and this man is a classic Catholic star," said Phyllis Clark, 76, a parishioner for 40 years at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Manhasset who has met the bishop several times.

"I think he's a beautiful person -- very holy, very receptive," Clark said. "He stands tall and straight for the church, defending it."

Msgr. James McNamara, a friend of Murphy, said the bishop had a "rough start" on Long Island but has turned a corner.

"He has won over a lot of people," said McNamara, pastor of the Church of the Holy Cross in Nesconset. "And I think there are some people he will never win over no matter what happens."

Work in the world

In his off hours, Murphy enjoys taking an occasional opera at the Met -- he's partial to Italian composers -- and dines out with close friends (Italian is a favorite again), said McNamara, who has known Murphy since their days in Rome in the 1980s. He likes to read theological tracts and books on social justice issues.

Fluent in Italian, Spanish and French, Murphy has played a role on the international stage, serving as a member of three U.S. government delegations to Haiti in 1987, 1990 and 1991. He accompanied Pope John Paul II on a historic visit to Cuba in 1998.

The bishop is firmly planted in the church's conservative wing, and said he will enforce the church's teaching against same-sex marriage, but won't demonize homosexuals.

"Am I going to go on what people want me to call a crusade and what they really mean is a witch hunt? No, we're not looking to beat people up," Murphy said. "However, we are looking to proclaim the truth, and the truth we're going to continue to proclaim is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman who commit themselves to each other in a faithful, loving marriage."

James Fallarino, a gay Catholic, said Murphy's stance was contradictory and could cause the church to lose parishioners.

"You can't have it both ways where you are going to say someone's sexual orientation or their marriage is wrong or immoral and then still think you can support all of your parishioners," said Fallarino, public affairs director for Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth advocacy organization.

Response from Latinos

Inside the church, Murphy has cultivated his growing Latino flock. Matilde Parada, a Catholic born in El Salvador who has been active in Latino day laborer issues in Farmingville, said Murphy attends major Latino religious events such as Holy Week Masses and wins over the crowds with his personality and ease with Spanish.

But some in the community wish he spoke out more when Latinos are victims of hate crimes, and on controversies such as the treatment of undocumented immigrants. "We've never felt his strong support," Parada said.

In 2003, several weeks after a Mexican family's home in Farmingville was firebombed by local white teenagers, Murphy went on a secret mission to console the shaken immigrants, outside the glare of the media, according to the Rev. Allan Ramirez, a leading Latino advocate who helped arrange the visit.

To some, the moment was Murphy at his best, ministering one on one. But Ramirez noted Murphy never made a public appearance with the family.

Murphy's years as leader of the diocese, Ramirez said, "unfortunately is a legacy lost, or a legacy wasted."

Murphy said he has been a stalwart defender of the community and "spoken out on immigration time and again."

He wrote in the diocesan newspaper, Long Island Catholic, about how other immigrant groups felt "opposition and even hostility" over the nation's history, and that "sadly, in our day it seems that the Latino community bears a similar burden . . . "

Interfaith efforts

Murphy describes his interfaith outreach effort as "one of the most satisfying aspects of my life as a priest and a bishop."

A post-9/11 multifaith service at St. Agnes Cathedral that he organized was "probably the most inclusive religious service of its kind that happened anywhere," said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches. "To host that in his cathedral was really a big deal. He stuck his neck out."

He is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' point man on international efforts to forge ties between Catholics and Jews, especially Orthodox Jews.

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, an Orthodox synagogue, who has worked with Murphy on interfaith commissions, said, "He's a wonderful man, a sensitive human being. He's a dear friend of Israel."

Murphy was the first bishop on Long Island to visit a mosque, and has gone back several times.

Habib Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, the largest mosque in Nassau County, said, "I am very, very pleased with the bishop and the way he reaches out to us."

Murphy said some of the most gratifying experiences of his tenure have been the "quiet moments" out of the spotlight when he showed up unexpectedly at a parish to mingle with parishioners and children. He's also taken great pleasure in handing out the annual St. Agnes Medal to parish volunteers he called "unsung heroes."

"It's just to say to them, 'You are the backbone of the church.' We all walk out beaming, because you see such goodness in so many people," he said.

As Murphy looks toward the twilight of his tenure, he finds it fitting that the first church in which he worked as a young priest in Rome was named St. Agnes, as is the cathedral in Rockville Centre.

"So I begin and end my life as a priest with the patronage and the help of St. Agnes," he said. "That's kind of a personal thing about how I see myself. This is home."

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