SAN DIEGO — Father Pat Murphy serves as senior associate pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Poway, a role that allows him to focus on what he loves best: offering spiritual direction.
As a confessor and spiritual director, the 68-year-old priest draws from his firsthand experience of being mired in sin and burdened by shame and of receiving God’s grace and forgiveness.
Before a dramatic conversion, Father Murphy spent more than 15 years away from the Church and in the throes of alcoholism.
Question: How did you fall away from the Church?
Answer: I always considered myself Catholic, but at 17, I got involved with drinking, partying and girls. In my mind, I couldn’t engage in the faith anymore because I wasn’t living a life that was conducive to being in God’s presence.
From 22 to 32, I made a living as a bartender. Bartending put me through college, but also got me into some trouble. I once spent 10 days in jail for drunk driving.
After four years in Laughlin, Nevada, where I was working in casinos, I moved across the river to Bullhead City, Ariz. I got fired and ended up living on the streets for about eight months. I either stole or begged for whatever I ate.
On my birthday in 1988, I reached out to my parents for the first time in years. I moved in with them, but I couldn’t get a job; I was unemployable because I was drinking a gallon of vodka a day. I even stole from my parents.
On Jan. 13, 1990, my dad gave me an ultimatum: Get help, or be gone by the time he got home. That day, I prayed the most honest prayer of my life: “God, help me.” Six hours later, I was in detox.
How did you find your way back to the Church?
The other three guys in detox had grand mal seizures. I was terrified that was going to happen to me, too. Over and over, I prayed, “God, help me.” All of a sudden, I had this intense experience of love — I knew it was God — and I fell peacefully asleep.
I had another profound experience two weeks later, when I went to confession at St. Mary Church in Escondido. I had been away from the Church for 16 years, and it was hard to walk through that door. I thought the priest was going to yell at me, but he said, “Welcome home! The Lord’s been waiting for you.”
After finishing my penance, I had an experience of Jesus holding me. It was as real as you are. For the next six months, I went to Mass every morning before my addiction-recovery meetings.
How did you first recognize a call to the priesthood?
Part of the recovery process is giving God permission to come into your life the way that He wants to come in your life. “Your will be done, without conditions.”
When the idea of priesthood started popping into my head, I ignored it for about two months. But one day, while praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I saw a piece of yellow paper that turned out to be a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I prayed it for nine days, asking God to tell me if He wanted me to be a priest. At the end of nine days, there were no apparitions and no voices, so I figured that was my no.
But, that evening, just outside the recovery home, I greeted one of my fellow residents. He said, “How’s it going, Father Murphy?” I asked why he called me that. He replied, “Oh, you’re always talking about God. You might as well just become a priest.” All the hairs on my arms and neck went up.
What happened next?
The priesthood thing wouldn’t go away. About six months later, I told my mom, “I know this is kind of weird, but I think maybe the Lord is calling me to be a priest.” I thought she would burst out laughing, but she said, “Pat, I’ve always seen that.”
Not long afterward, I met with the diocesan vocations director. I laid out my whole story and figured he was going to say, “Don’t let the door hit you in the rear end. Thanks for stopping by, but you’re not a good candidate.” I was looking for a no, but he wouldn’t give me that no. Instead, he encouraged me to continue my discernment.
In late summer of 1991, I was officially accepted into the diocese’s priestly formation program. Since I was praying that the Lord’s will would be done in my life, without conditions, I figured that I had to keep walking through these doors until the doors closed. Of the eight guys in my seminary class, I was the only one to be ordained.
What’s your message to those who are holding back from going to confession?
Everything’s forgivable. Trust in God’s love; that’s greater than any sin. Go to confession, and you can really have a new start. Although the central focus of our faith is the Eucharist, one experience of reconciliation in the right time, at the right place, can change your life dramatically.