Interview with Fr. Donnon Murray OFM

What was the main influence that led you to be fully committed to the service of marriage and family?

donnon_murray– I was very well blessed in being one of eight children raised by loving and trusting parents who made each of us feel that we were equally loved by them; and this in turn resulted in an extraordinary love that we had and have for one another. It has led me to feel that I have the best parents and family imaginable. For a long time I naively thought that this must generally be the case. But after having had the opportunity to meet and work with young people and couples, it dawned on me that the great majority of people I came across that have psychological, spiritual, and even physical problems, came from dysfunctional families. It may be somewhat of an overstatement, but I now believe that every problem in the world, in one way or another, can be traced to one’s family environment – especially in the earliest years of one’s upbringing. (It would be interesting to know the family background of terrorists for example.) Accordingly, if this were even only partially true, I could not help but conclude that a priest’s work must primarily be oriented toward couples and families, and not to individuals, as if they suddenly appeared on the scene in a vacuum that has nothing to do with their family life and the environment of their upbringing. Thankfully my Religious Superiors, being very perceptive and understanding men, have agreed, and have given me permission to do this work on a full time basis.

What is the approach of priests? Do they accept your message or do they think that the fundamental teaching of the Church provides sufficient guidance for their pastoral work for familes?

– As I look back on my own formation in the seminary, despite the undeniable expertise and holiness of most of my teachers, I cannot recall a single instance when any mention was made concerning the feasibility of evangelization being made in and through the family: this in spite of the fact that the Church has always been made up of families; it is precisely families that are the object of our pastoral work; and in the great majority of cases, vocations to clerical and religious life come from families for whom Jesus is a living and necessary Presence. After having made inquiries, it is my judgement that the importance of pastoral work in and through the family is still not a priority in the formation of seminarians. Therefore it would seem that, notwithstanding the very clear injunctions of recent Popes (and most especially Pope John Paul II), the Documents of the Vatican Council, etc, most priests remain unaware of how imperative those injunctions are. They do not make an objective comparison between traditional ways of pastoring versus evangelizing in and through the family, and decide in favor of the former. They are simply innocently unaware. I have been told by a number of priests that they had never thought of such a thing, and therefore obviously never been told such a thing. Yet it is my observation that couples that I have met all over the world take second place to no priest that I have ever known in the strength of their faith and unrelenting zeal in spreading it. They instinctively understand fully that couples and families in the Church cannot afford to be introverted (totally focusing inward upon themselves), but extroverted (reaching out to one another, the community and society). In this regard the words of Vatican II in „The Church Today” are very enlightening: „They are mistaken who… think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations… The split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” I have to ask myself whether I, as a priest, have allowed myself to be guilty of that „serious error”.

Is it appropriate to have lay people with all their marriage experiences involved with the work for families, or is it not?

– It is obviously appropriate that lay people, who are married and have families, be fully committed to work with families because it is they – and not celibate priests – who are the experts in this field. A clear example would be lay involvement in marriage preparation courses. But it seems that the present administration of the Church in most countries is such that permission from the pastor is expected and required before any kind of involvement in evangelization can take place; and to avoid aberrations, this is as it should be. However, over and above that, lay people have been so dependent on the priests for so long, that seemingly, despite all the goodwill in the world, they are unwilling to become involved in any work of evangelization without the active support and encouragement of their priests. Many people have shared with me that this is unfortunately too often not forthcoming, despite worldwide official recognition from the Church concerning apostolates that are completely orthodox and unequivocally spiritually fruitful.

In your opinion, what are the particular areas of major failures in pastoral work for families and couples?

– I mentioned before the apparent lack in the formation of seminarians of the imperative need that the Church always had, but most especially in this day and age has, for giving priority to the family apostolate. If such a need is not stressed, some priests may never advert to it, unless they are by chance put into a circumstance that will make it clear to them.
In addition there was a time in the Church when the priest was the most highly educated person among his entire congregation, and the responsibility for virtually every aspect of the running of the parish fell on his shoulders. No reasonable priest believes that that is still the case. He may well be intellectually surpassed by many of his parishioners, and that could include knowledge of theology as well. And while it is a rare priest who would not acknowledge that, and wisely utilize the varied expertise of his parishioners in the concrete running of the parish, nevertheless it is not unusual to see a reluctance among priests in many countries to entrust to couples activities that have to do with the deepening of spiritual lives. That could be another obstacle to greater cooperation between priests and the couples and families.
Still another factor could be ignorance on the part of priests as to what extent the couples and families are willing, as well as able, to evangelize among other couples and families. And of course there are many other reasons as well.

How did you manage to come to Europe and what are your impressions?

– Every three years there is, in some country of the world, an international meeting of Christian Family Movements. Three years ago that meeting was held in Bangkok; and although the work with which I am involved, which includes 20 different programs for deepening family life in the Lord, is not a „Movement”, but rather a „service” to the Church (and therefore to any and all Movements), it does nevertheless very much have to do with married and family life. It is in this capacity that I attended that meeting along with the founder of these various programs, Fr. Gabriel Calvo from Spain. It was there that, by chance, we met with CFM leaders in Hungary and Slovakia, who immediately saw the need for such programs in their countries, and invited me to come. In response to that request I have been to Hungary and Slovakia three times to introduce some of those programs. In both countries I have found a deep faith along with a fervent desire to deepen that faith and experience more and more the joy that only true faith can bring. The couples and families that I have met are very warm and open. And the priests that I have met, although inundated with work just like priests in othere countries, are also warm, cheerful and open. Because of that, I foresee a great future for the Church here, after the long years of that Faith being so sorely tested. It is certain that many wounds must first be healed; but it is precisely the blood of martyrs through which the Church is strengthened.

You were born in America and have been working in Japan for many years. Can you utilize your experience from Japan in your work for families in Europe? Can you briefly compare the problems encountered by families here and there?

– The more I travel around and meet people from different nations, the more I realize that people are the same. The language may be different, and there are certainly some cultural differences; but basically we have the same joys, the same needs, the same problems. What is abundantly clear is that the Gospel is meant for all of mankind, and when presented, people everywhere realize that it transcends cultures, languages, nations, peoples and eras.
A common problem in every country is the breakdown of family life where parent-child relationships are very poor. We all know there are varied reasons for this. Some parents are overly concerned with material possessions, causing overwork on the part of one or both parents to the neglect of the children. For whatever reason, children do not experience love in the family (a basic need), cannot endure this situation, and consequently choose all manner of escapes. These in turn anger the parents and result in even greater gaps between parents and children. Save the family and you save society and the world (and the Church). Lose the family and you lose society and the world (and most tragically the Church). This is something we cannot afford not to recognize, and to respond in a Gospel way.

(August 2001)