This former auxiliary bishop of Chicago had known mostly urban settings. His ministry took him to the University of Detroit, Georgetown University, and a high school in Washington, D.C. Now, Bishop Murry is coadjutor bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. On a recent visit to the North American College, Rome, he spoke with Register correspondent Raymond De Souza.
De Souza: How did you react when you heard the news of your appointment to the Virgin Islands?
Bishop Murry: The first reaction was surprise. I had no idea that I was even being considered to be sent to the Virgin Islands. I had spent three very enjoyable years as auxiliary bishop in Chicago, and before that my experience had been mostly a combination of educational and pastoral work. So I was surprised when I found out that I was going to the Virgin Islands.
Had you had previous experience in the Virgin Islands?
I had been to Puerto Rico, which is 40 miles west of the Virgin Islands, and I had a close friend who grew up in the Virgin Islands who now lives in Philadelphia. I was coming up on my 50th birthday and he had said to me just a few weeks before my appointment, “Why donít you go down to the Virgin Islands and stay at our house there? It will be a nice way to turn fifty.” So when I was appointed, I called him and said, “Not only will I go down to the Virgin Islands but I am going to stay there!”
How have your first few months been?
There was a certain apprehension about going to a completely different culture, a completely different place on the map, to be of service to the people there. I really appreciated the welcome that they gave me and the fact that the people took the time to explain things to me and show me around. I am sure they would do that for any bishop, but they were especially sensitive to the fact that I did not know much about the Islands.
I read as much as I could before going there about the history, and I tried to get as much information as possible. Yet I think that it is very human to wonder, “Can I go in and be an effective bishop for the people there?” I am not from there, I do not know the situation, I do not know the culture.
I wondered the same thing when I went to Chicago, and I found that the people helped me to be a good bishop and taught me how to be a bishop. The archbishops, [Joseph] Cardinal Bernardin and [Francis] Cardinal George, were very helpful. In the Virgin Islands, I have learned a great deal from Bishop Elliot Thomas and from the priests and the people there.
Have your found many similarities between United States and the Virgin Islands?
The Virgin Islands are a U.S. possession situated in the Caribbean, so there are cultural influences from the mainland United States and, along with that, cultural influences from the Caribbean or the West Indies. One of the things that many parents worry about in the Islands is that their children are exposed to the worst elements of “mainland culture.”
Some things are the same any place you go. An example of that would be either the faith or lack of faith of the people you are working with. The church in the Virgin Islands is alive, is a solid, faithful church, and is very involved in the day-to-day lives of the people in the Virgin Islands. They are a deeply spiritual, deeply religious people and that is a joy to work with. I think any bishop, any priest, going into a new situation looks to see what is the level of faith of the people here.
I found a deep faith, an abiding faith, and an animated faith in the Virgin Islands.
The difference in size between Chicago and the Virgin Islands must be a big change.
In Chicago, because of the size of the city and the size of the diocese, there is a huge number of parishes and schools. In the Virgin Islands we do not have a huge number. We have 10 parishes, three elementary schools, and two high schools, but the same questions are being asked there as would be asked in any diocese.
As a former high school president, Catholic schools must be a priority for you.
In our schools, the question comes up: How do we provide the best Catholic education for the young men and women who come to our schools? We face the same problems as the big dioceses do in the sense that it is very expensive to run Catholic schools. We are continually looking for ways of bearing the cost of those schools and preserving the most important thing, which is our Catholic identity. We are not just running private schools, we are running Catholic schools. What in my mind identifies them as Catholic is the fact that they are rooted in our Catholic faith and our Catholic tradition and we can in no way downplay that. That is the most important thing — to teach and live the faith.
Are there things that you can do in a smaller diocese that you couldn't do in Chicago?
In a small diocese, one of the great advantages is that you can know people. I am now in the process of doing weekend parish visits. When I do the parish visits, I spend the entire weekend at the parish — celebrate all the Masses, hear confessions, visit the sick, meet with the parish council and other parish organizations, and spend time with the priest. I get to know the priests and the people well and they get to know me and that makes it easy to exchange ideas and to work together.
The first advantage of a smaller diocese is that contact that you can have on a daily basis which helps to build a sense of understanding and trust and community. So there is a difference and it is a helpful difference.
What challenges are posed by the large number of tourists in the Islands?
One of the things that the priests and I have talked about is how we have to be very aware of the tourists that are coming in. Some of those tourists come in on a cruise ship and are only in the diocese for a day. … Other people come and stay for a longer period of time, they may be there for a week. There are some people who have two houses, one in the States and the other in the Islands and they come down for two or three months. It is important for us to be aware of them and then it is important for us to be available to them. …
I would like very much to have a priest in the area of St. Thomas where most of the cruise ships come in. I would like to have a chapel there and I would like to have a priest available there during the time when the ships are in if someone wants to go to confession or someone wants to talk to a priest. We cannot do that right now.
Have you experienced any culture shock?
It is what many people would describe as a laid-back culture. People tend to be more calm than they would be in some of the big cities in the States. Along with that calmness comes a certain peacefulness that you find very much among the people. Many of the priests kid with me because being from cities all my life I tend to want to move more quickly than many things move in the Islands. They tell me, “Bishop, you need to slow down!” I always kid them and say, “I'll meet you halfway — I'll slow down if you speed up!” I am learning and getting better at this.
Do you get time to keep up with your academic work?
No! [laughing] My degree is in American history and I try to read in that as much as I can, but there is not much time due to administrative and pastoral responsibilities. The thing I miss most from the academic part of my life is teaching — I love teaching.
The primary responsibility of any bishop is to help his people grow in Christ, and part of that involves teaching. When I was in Chicago, and now also in the Virgin Islands, I tried to use confirmations as an opportunity to teach the young people about the faith. Yet there is not time to teach as much as I did before. But that's OK — this is where the Lord is calling me at this point in my life.
I have never regretted the decision to be a priest, and I thoroughly enjoy being a bishop. I get the chance not only to be a priest to the people, but also to be a priest to priests, to be a pastor to priests. I have always found the priesthood, with all its challenges, to be very fulfilling. It would nice to spend more time with the books, but I love what I do.
—Raymond de Souza
BISHOP GEORGE MURRY
Personal: Born in Camden, N.J., in 1948; attended St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore; entered the Society of Jesus in 1972 and was ordained in 1979.
Background: Served as a university professor; president of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C.; associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Detroit before being appointed auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1995.
Current position: Coadjutor Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands; member of the board of trustees of Loyola University of Chicago; treasurer of the Bishops' Catholic Legal Immigration Network; chairman of the Bishops' Committee on African American Catholics.