A life: Police pro, father, monk and Father

Back in my reporting days, there was no assignment that I feared more than writing a simple obituary. I know many other reporters who feel the same way.

Stop and thing about this for a minute. Your assignment is to try to capture the complexities of a human life — or at least offer an accurate snapshot — in whatever number of inches of news hole that a busy and often distracted editor chooses to give to you. And the chance that you might make a mistake? Surely there is a special hole deep in the depths of Hades for journalists who make mistakes in obituaries.

In light of all that, I wanted to urge GetReligion readers to click here and read Washington Post reporter Emily Langer’s lovely and complex obit for a man who lived his life in two very radically different environments. It certainly seems that Jim Murray sought peace and justice in both of them. The religion element in this story is right where it belongs — at the heart of things. Thus, the lede:

Jim Murray, 85, who as a top civilian official in the D.C. police department led a minority recruitment drive that diversified the force after the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Oct. 31 at St. Bede Academy, a monastery in Illinois.

Mr. Murray had lived there for more than two decades, since undergoing a spiritual awakening that led him to become a Benedictine monk and an ordained Roman Catholic priest. He had cancer, said his son, Matt Murray, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of a 1999 memoir about his father, “The Father and the Son.”

By all means, mull over the details, because there are many worth the attention. Murray fouught for racial harmony (and improved working conditions for women) in a tense and very diverse city, while simultaneously trying to keep the department growing along with the city. He faced blunt political challenges and the numbing details of administration.

Murray did the best he could.

Then his life turned upside down, then right side up.

The year after Mr. Murray left for a job with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, his wife died of breast cancer. He did his best to continue working and finish raising his children, but he spoke of feeling “a lack of depth” in his life, his son wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

The day after he retired in 1979, he began to attend Mass daily, a sign of a transformation in his approach to Catholicism. Among the signs of that change, his son wrote, were the tears that streamed down his face during the church service.

Always a reader, he exchanged his old books for works on the lives of saints. One by one, he sold his possessions, including his home in Bethesda, and began to live like a “suburban mendicant,” his son wrote.

In 1985, he moved to St. Bede, where he took the vows that made him first a monk and then a priest.

“I just abandoned myself to God,” he told his son.

Read all the way to the end, when Father James shares the truth that tied his life together, the truth that he must have shared with the many believers who regularly visited the monastery to claim him as their spiritual father in the act of Confession.

By all means read it all.

IMAGE: The Venerable Saint Bede.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark

    Beautiful! A breath of fresh air not just in the life represented, but as you say, in the pithy manner in which the essential values of the person are shared.

  • Jerry N

    Thank you for passing this along. It reminds me a little of that wonderful NY Times piece on those twins in a Franciscan order who died on the same day.

  • Susanna

    How please I was to see that you picked up this wonderful story.Yes the piece was well written. Fr. James would have been pleased as he loved to read and was a writer in his own right. He lived passionately for God and had a great love for our Blessed Mother. He was a loving father to his children and became a father to many, many more…always guiding all of his children to seek truth, to be faithful and obedient. He will be greatly missed by many for many came to rely on him as their spiritaul father on their faith journey – to draw closer to our Lord and to our Blessed Mother and to live in accordance to the Father’s will. May he rest in the peace of Christ!


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