Former Eagles GM remembers chance encounter with Pope John Paul II in ’79 [video]

John Murray's son John Paul was born in January of 1979. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

John Murray's son John Paul was born in January of 1979. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many people are hoping for a “chance encounter” with Pope Francis this weekend.

One such meeting took place 36 years ago when Pope John Paul II visited the city to celebrate Mass along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Jim Murray, one of the co-founders of the Ronald McDonald House and former general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, didn’t go out of his way to get VIP tickets to see the pontiff in Philadelphia in the fall of 1979. The devout Catholic was busy running a football team.

But then Franny Rafferty, a city councilman at the time, offered him tickets.

After initially declining the passes, Murray ultimately snapped them up for him, his wife, Diane, and a few of their kids, including their then-infant son John Paul — named after the pontiff.

“We were so impressed with reading what John Paul had done. His life. His journey. And it just seemed like a perfect name,” said Murray.

The Murrays thought it would be wonderful if they could snag the chance to have their son meet his namesake. So on the day of the Mass, in hopes of catching the pope’s eye, they dressed their son in a shirt boldly spelling out his name. And they brought along a sign: “I too am named John Paul, in your honor in His glory.”

jim murray1

Jim Murray, his wife, Diane, and their family in 1979. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Murrays’ seats were about 30 yards from the altar on Logan Circle. Jim Murray spotted empty seats up front and — being the nice guy that he is — offered to escort a group of nuns over to the seats. Murray was carrying his son and helping the nuns when all of a sudden the pope appeared. Thinking quickly, Murray handed the baby to an old friend, a priest, standing inches away from the pontiff.

“The stir of the crowd went crazy that the pope, not on a popemobile, entered this circle, and I don’t know if it was a priest with a baby in conservative Philadelphia or whatever, but he ran over and grabbed my son. And it all happened in a flash,” said Murray.

Murray said the pope blessed and kissed John Paul. Overwhelmed by the moment, he, himself, barely saw what happened. But a photographer friend did, and he snapped a picture of the two John Pauls.


jim murray2jpg

Jim Murray’s son, Joh Paul, is blessed by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 3, 1979. (Photo by Edwin Mahan)

“When you look at the picture, you would think he posed for it because the sun’s on his face,” said Murray.

John Paul Murray is now in his late 30s and a devout Catholic. He’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis this week.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal