This is the seventh in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession. The sixth featured Sean O’Brien, OFM. The Province’s 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored June 21 at a special Mass celebrated in New York City.
ROME – As an altar boy at St. Anthony Parish in Hawthorne, N.J., Russel Murray, OFM, was amazed how the priests would open the meaning of the Scriptures in a way that made sense to people’s lives. Although it was the early murmurings of religious vocation, it wasn’t until his senior year at Don Bosco High School in Ramsey, N.J., that a book about the life of St. Francis of Assisi put the Franciscans on his radar.
As with the homilies of his parish priests, Russel was fascinated with the idea of being part of a band of brothers who cared for the poor and preached the Gospel.
“I called the diocesan vocation office to find out if the band of brothers founded by St. Francis still existed. I could hear the chuckling on the other end of the line,” recalled Russel, who is celebrating 25 years since his first profession as a Franciscan friar.
Much to his surprise, there were multiple bands of brothers still doing the work started by St. Francis. But the diocese provided contact information for the vocation office of Holy Name Province.
“I was taken by the loving and intimate friendship that Francis had with Christ, and by the camaraderie of Francis and his followers. I thought, ‘I’d like to have that, too,’” said Russel, who currently serves as moderator for evangelization at the General Curia of the Order of Friars Minor.
Elected to the six-year position at the General Definitoium’s June 2015 session, Russel develops and oversees new initiatives that enhance and expand Franciscan life and mission throughout the Order. Among other tasks and initiatives, he coordinates regional meetings where friars share dialogue about their ministries, which Russel then compiles into a database that is accessible to all friars.
Early Life and Formation
The eldest of two sons of Russel and Carol Murray, a printing press operator and secretary, respectively, Russel remembers his mother stopping at the parish rectory every Sunday morning to pick up materials for the religious education class that she taught.
“My mother made sure that faith was an important part of our lives,” Russel said during a phone interview. “I was an inquisitive kid, so to keep me quiet at Sunday Mass, my mother promised to answer my questions after Church.”
He added, “Preaching always appealed to me and I thought it would be an amazing thing to do.”
After graduating high school, Russel earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. Although taught and influenced by Jesuits while at Fordham, Russel kept the Franciscans in his sights, corresponding regularly with HNP’s vocation director.
Russel graduated from Fordham in May 1991 but remained in the Bronx, arriving in July that year at Holy Cross Friary, where he began his affiliate, or postulant, year with the friars. He was received into the Franciscan Order on June 26, 1992 at St. Francis Novitiate in Brookline, Mass., where he professed his first vows in June 1993.
“Both houses were neat because the fraternal relationship and community of brothers – the aspect of the Franciscans that appealed to me the most – was apparent among the friars,” Russel said. “As novices in formation, we were living among friars who were involved in different ministries. Everyone was welcoming.”
He professed his solemn vows on Sept. 13, 1997 at St. Francis Church on West 31st Street in New York City, where on May 16, 1998, he was also ordained to the priesthood. After ordination, Russel was assigned to St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston.
“People came to St. Anthony because of the Franciscans. They knew the kindness and compassion of the friars, and they knew they would receive God’s love, mercy and grace,” Russel explained. “You just happen to be the friar on duty, meeting a person for the first time and probably never seeing them again. But the grace that you are a part of for that moment, in that encounter, starts the process that will be with that person for a lifetime.”
He continued, “A person needs someone at that hour, and God puts you there. It made me so incredibly proud to be a friar and part of this process of grace, but it was also incredibly humbling when I thought – who am I to be part of that?”
Russel added, “Most of ministry is showing up and listening. You participate, but it’s largely allowing people to talk. Sometimes they just need someone to listen – and in listening to themselves, they listen to God and open themselves to his grace. I make sure I don’t get in the way.”
During formation, Russel served in a number of ministries that included summer assignments at the now-shuttered Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan, and at St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street, where he worked with St. Francis Breadline, among other duties.
A one-year internship to Russia was cut short because of illness, but not before the seven-month stay sparked his interest in ecumenical work and served as a sobering experience to the challenges of evangelization in a country where Catholics are in the minority. (This was in the mid-1990’s when the Soviet Union was dismantled and the Church was trying to re-establish itself in Russia.)
Russel, who studied the Russian language in college, served in a parish, teaching general Christian catechism classes to grade school students, working in an after-school program teaching children to write in their native Russian, and bringing food and clothing to poor, homebound and elderly.
One of the most haunting images was a 15-year-old girl who showed up on the parish doorsteps, when snow was piled everywhere and temperatures were below freezing. She was dressed in a knit sweater, skirt and flip-flops because her drunken parents kicked her into the street after learning that she had been going to the church with a friend.
“It was an exceptionally difficult and isolating experience because of the absence of fraternity – the closest Franciscan house was a 26-hour drive away – and abject parental neglect because of rampant alcoholism, not to mention that you were always cold and hungry,” recalled Russel, who said an image of the face of Christ that he found in the parish basement and hung over his bed helped him through the challenges (and which, years later, he mounted on a piece of wood and still keeps as a reminder of the core of his vocation).
Russel completed his internship serving in campus ministry at the University of Georgia, preaching at weekday Masses and working with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
While in formation and completing his master’s in divinity degree at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., Russel lived at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., from August 1993 to June 1996. At the end of his novitiate, he was asked to consider a teaching ministry at WTU – an invitation that caught him by surprise because he had envisioned performing service ministries.
After his assignment at the Shrine and earning a doctorate in the theology of church and ecumenical dialogue in 2005 from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, Russel moved to Gemelli House in Silver Spring in the summer of 2007 and became an associate professor in the department of moral and systematic theology at WTU.
‘Yes’ to Teaching
While teaching wasn’t something he had wanted to do when he entered the Order, the more he discerned the invitation of his formation directors to consider the possibility of teaching, the more he realized that saying “yes” would be “affirming the vow of giving himself to this brotherhood. If my brothers thought I could help them in this way, I should consider the invitation seriously, with an open mind and heart, just as those who answered the invitation of St. Francis centuries ago,” Russel said.
“As a friar, I am bound not by what I do, but what God calls me to be. First and foremost, I am a brother to the community of friars – and our vocation is a lifetime of saying yes to God, over and over again. Ultimately, that is our role as friars – being part of a fraternity that says ‘yes,’ no matter what we are asked,” Russel said.
Russel ultimately found great joy in teaching. “As it turned out, I loved teaching theology because it was a way of breaking open faith and the teachings of the Church to others – and equally important, it showed me what it means to complete the mission in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom,” added Russel, who taught friars in formation and laypeople at WTU.
In addition to teaching, Russel served in other ministries while living in Silver Spring – such as working with Secular Franciscans, organizing retreats for a marriage encounter program (he still visits some of the couples when he’s in Washington), and serving as a chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he celebrated Mass, heard confessions and provided spiritual comfort and a listening ear to service men and women and their families.
Accustomed to teaching theology to graduate students, he understandably felt slightly out of his academic comfort zone when he was transferred to a three-year assignment as director of the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., in 2011. But the role fit his personality, as he delved into opening up new places and developing enriching experiences for Siena students.
During his current assignment in Rome, he has also worked as a pilgrim guide, principally with parochial high school students from around the world, for the Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, a program that he says uses “sacred geography” to help people experience Franciscan origins by visiting locations associated with St. Francis and his followers – including the house where he lived and the chapel that he built to care for lepers.
Interfaith and Laity
Russel also serves as president of the Order’s Commission for Dialogue (ecumenical and interreligious) that brings together religious, academics and the laity to develop interreligious programs, for example, religious festivals and peace initiatives.
“Ecumenical and interfaith ministry touches my own interest and the core of being a friar – going out to and engaging the people, and sharing with those willing to receive,” Russel said. “This roots people more deeply in their faith – and the more rooted you are in faith, the more open you are in respecting the dignity of other people’s faith. If God is at work among them, you have something to learn from them.”
One of the most unique aspects of Holy Name Province, says Russel, is how well it works with laypeople.
“Promoting vocations among the laity is a true calling and vocation of the Church. As we see shifts in society and speak to the realities of today’s world, embracing the laity and their involvement, and empowering people to speak for themselves, is an important part of what we do as friars,” he said, noting that another distinctive aspect is that “HNP has always valued the vocation of every friar and has allowed us to focus on being friars, rather than on just priestly and pastoral duties.”
The overall fraternity has been special for Russel, but a handful of friars stand out as being inspirational – among them the late Juniper Capece, OFM, who demonstrated what it means to say “yes” to vocation. Among his family photos is a photo of Juniper sitting at his sewing machine.
“Juniper was the resident tailor who made all of our habits. He didn’t want to follow the footsteps of his father, who was a tailor. But he reported to the tailor shop and opened his heart to where was needed,” Russel said. “He taught me how to embrace difficult times with joy, and that the most important thing is your relationship with Christ. He crystalized the best aspects of vocation and the Province, and what we are called to be.”
Russel was also inspired by the late Peter Sheridan, OFM. “He was always so grateful and gracious for the help he was given with performing some simple aspects of living – and it is that fraternal life, the love and concern for one another, that overflows into our service to people,” Russel said. “This fraternity helps us more effectively spread the Gospel message.”
Russel enjoys visiting museums and art galleries, listening to music, and traveling – although he also enjoys being a homebody, watching sports and reading all genres of books, especially history, historical fiction and novels set in Rome. But there is nothing he enjoys more than being a member of the “band of brothers” that attracted him to his now two-and-a-half decades as a Franciscan friar.
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Serving as General Animator for Evangelization” – Jan. 12, 2016, HNP Today
- “Honoring Juniper Capece” – Dec. 9. 2009, HNP Today
- “Conference in South American Inspires Siena College’s Russel Murray” – April 11, 2012, HNP Today
- “Peter Sheridan Celebrates 75 Years with HNP” – April 28, 2010 HNP Today