Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne
When the church historian Massimo Faggioli was doing research at America Media last week, he uncovered a treasure trove of “poems on postcards” in the magazine from the 1960s by John Cogley, the former managing editor of Commonweal and later the religion editor of The New York Times. One, “Literary Intelligence,” offered quick and pithy IDs of many prominent writers (“Hans Küng is only thirty-five/ Upton Sinclair is quite alive”), but finished with a question on everyone’s mind during the Second Vatican Council:
I know their habits, their next of kin
But who the hell is Xavier Rynne?
Cogley wasn’t the only one asking. Writing in The New Yorker, the mysterious Xavier Rynne was spilling all the tea during Vatican II. His “Letter from Vatican City” ran from 1962 through 1965, and offered an unvarnished, mostly uncensored take on the internal operations of the council. His columns played a major role in the Catholic public perception of the council—including the description of opposing camps of traditionalist bishops and reformer bishops that became a major takeaway for many readers, Catholic and not. But no one could quite figure out who the author really was. He was obviously an American, but he was trading gossip with Italian reporters and recording observations made in Vatican stairwells like the wiliest of Romans.
Because much of Murphy’s reporting on the Vatican was on sensitive and non-public matters, he and Shawn decided he would use a pseudonym formed from his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.
So who was he, really? Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., an American Redemptorist priest who was serving as a theological adviser (a peritus) to a Redemptorist bishop at the council, Bishop Aloysius Willinger. Murphy had written for American Catholic periodicals for years, including America, and leading up to the council his writing drew the attention of Robert Giroux, the legendary editor from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who approached The New Yorker editor William Shawn about running him as a columnist in the magazine.
Because much of Murphy’s reporting on the Vatican was on sensitive and non-public matters—often the ecclesial gossip he overheard in elevators and in meals with reporters and other theological advisors—he and Shawn decided he would use a pseudonym formed from his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.
The New Yorker scored quite a coup with Rynne’s columns, especially as it became clear that the Vatican Curia was dominated by traditionalist bishops and cardinals who opposed many of the council reforms but were eventually sidelined by the sheer number of bishops from around the world seeking reform—and by the latter’s theological experts, many of whom became household names for Catholics in the years after the council: Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar, Schillebeecx, Küng, de Lubac and more.
Some bishops and Vatican officials attempted to suss out the true author behind Xavier Rynne during the Council, and he later claimed that he had been called in at one point by the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after he had described the man, an Italian archbishop, as “a strange personality who has few friends and sees heresy everywhere.”
In the years after the council, America took to describing Murphy as “well-accredited in the field of Roman documents” and “a long-term observer of the Roman scene.”
Could America have kept Rynne for its own? After all, he had been writing for the magazine since 1948, and had contributed a number of essays and book reviews over the years. In fact, the week the council started, America published Murphy’s “The Council Opens,” a long introduction to the inner workings of the council that set the stage for much of his writing to follow. It was published on Oct. 20, 1962—the same day that The New Yorker published the first “Letter from Vatican City.”
Murphy’s contract wasn’t exclusive, and he continued writing about the council under his true name for America and other church outlets, including a March 9, 1963, essay, “Vatican II: Early Appraisal.” His identity eventually became something of an open secret—his writing style for America and others had much of the same “here is the inside scoop” flavor as his work for The New Yorker—but he didn’t admit it publicly for decades. In the years after the council, America took to describing him delicately in articles as “well-accredited in the field of Roman documents” and “a long-term observer of the Roman scene.” When he reported on the 1986 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome, America settled on the following author ID:
Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., is a church historian who supervised contributions to the New Catholic Encyclopedia and is thought, perhaps inaccurately, to be Xavier Rynne, pseudonymous author of Letters From Vatican City written during the Second Vatican Council.
Murphy served for years after the council in Rome and in the United States as a university professor and seminary rector. His last article for America was a long 1993 book review of the memoirs of Belgian Cardinal Jozef Suenens, a prominent figure at Vatican II. Murphy died in 2002 at the age of 87. Four years earlier, Murphy had finally confirmed to a Religion News Service reporter in 1998 that he was the real Xavier Rynne.
Why did Murphy choose finally to reveal his true identity? “I was afraid that if I went to my grave without making it known,” he told the reporter, “the damned Jesuits would have claimed it was one of theirs and the Redemptorists would have been just as happy.”
“I was afraid 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.”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
James T. Keane