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Archbishop is a magnetic public figure

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/30/1984

n his first week as leader of Greater Boston's 2 million Catholics, Archbishop Bernard F. Law has shown himself to be a magnetic public figure, able to charm an individual, a television audience or a hall full of expectant parishioners.

He has also shown himself to be direct and forceful in confronting dissent and in claiming the loyalty of his sisters, priests and lay people, to the extent of actually joking about firing his staff. It is a performance that invites comparison with two other Boston figures who have been called charismatic, RichardCardinal Cushing and President John F. Kennedy.

Monday night at Immaculate Conception Church in Weymouth, Archbishop Law was all but mobbed by the largest crowd yet to see him, with a thousand waiting until after 11 p.m. to shake hands with him.

The 1800 seats in the modernistic church were taken by 4 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. service, and later arrivals filled the aisles and jammed doorways until 3000 persons waited inside and out to see him. Another 300 to 400 clustered around a large screen television set in the cold outside, halting their chatter to listen raptly to the archbishop's sermon, with many drifting away after he finished speaking.

John Logue, an administrator at Carney Hospital, read one of the scripture lessons for that Mass and was struck by the interaction between the archbishop and the congregation. "There's a magnetism I certainly have not witnessed before, almost of the Kennedy magnitude," Logue said.

But even in a crowd, Archbishop Law creates a private, almost confidential exchange with people. "It's almost as if they were going to confession," said a priest who has watched it.

He has a "very transparent way of looking at people," said Bishop Daniel A. Hart, regional bishop for the Brockton region of the archdiocese. "There's a feeling that nothing is between him and you. His eyes are very clear and looking right through you. He's very calmly intense and draws you into explaining what it is you're trying to tell him."

Archbishop Law admits he is energized by the attention, even while he is frustrated by the complexity of organizational details. "This is a pretty awesome church we have in the archdiocese," he told the Weymouth congregation. "I almost lose heart trying to make sense of the organization chart."

But the response of clergy, sisters and lay people makes up for it, the archbishop said. "I feel a surge of spiritual energy," he said, from the "outpouring of love, and welcome and enthusiasm . . . that fills me with a sense of hope."

He was asked later in the week if he was tiring of the publicity and crowds. His voice was hoarse from talking so much, but he brightened visibly and said: "I feel very good about it. I want to be able to bring the message of hope and love to all people, and all the attention helps me to do that."

How long will the favorable attention last? "Until the first decision is made that affects somebody," he said.

Several times, he has given a hint of the tough-minded individual beneath the personable demeanor.

Speaking to his clergy his first night as archbishop, he hinted at a tougher regime for seminarians and joked about major changes in his archdiocesan staff.

"It would be folly to reorganize the diocesan curia at this time, tempting though the prospect may be," Archbishop Law said to laughter of the priests and deacons attending a reception he gave. "Don't read anything into that," he said, emphasizing the flippancy of the remark, but then added, unsettlingly: "If you want to read something into it, that's OK, too."

Last Saturday, at a Mass for sisters, he spoke indirectly of the need for their loyalty to church authority, insisting that the "charismatic church cannot exist without the institutional church."

When challenged on the church's record on discrimination towards women, he repeated what he had said in demanding the loyalty of his clergy, that he was the Pope's bishop and "the ministry of the Holy Father is the touchstone of Catholic faith."

To lay people, he said: "I will call you who with me are the archdiocese to live out fully our profession of faith. . . We cannot tolerate the false notion that it can be yes' in some aspects of our life and no' in others." And asked about his stance on a state constitutional amendment on abortion, he said there should be no doubt that "whatever breath I have will be expended in the cause of human life."

"I don't think anybody expects a Catholic bishop to say anything else," he said. "I don't expect a Catholic to say anything else."

So far, that toughness has not affected the churchman's relationship to his public, Catholic or otherwise. "The archbishop will discover . . . that it is not easy nor always pleasant to be the archbishop of Boston," said Rev. Dr. James A. Nash of the Massachusetts Council of Churches in welcoming him. "Recognizing that fact, a host of Protestants in the Commonwealth offer Bernard Law a welcoming, comforting and helping hand."

Archbishop Law starts his reign in Boston with nearly as much public recognition as the late Cardinal Cushing had at the end of his 26 years as archbishop, after he became an internationally known figure for his role in the Second Vatican Council and his association with the Kennedy family.

Repeatedly in the crowds that have surrounded him, older people suggest that "he's another Cushing." However, Rev. A. Paul White, who has known both men, suggests the only characteristic they share is that "both are workaholics."

Fr. White, editor of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, said Cardinal Cushing's Boston popularity went back to the days before he was archbishop and went out speaking night after night raising money for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

"Both are forceful," said Fr. White, "but I see in Archbishop Law the charm and personality and the clarity and openness I didn't see in Cardinal Cushing."

The difference is apparent in the broadcast personality of the two. Cardinal Cushing "was even overwhelming praying the rosary on the radio," said Fr. White.

By contrast, Archbishop Law has mastered the subtle art of using television, looking through the camera into an audience of which he always seems aware and never trying to overwhelm his viewers. In a television Mass last Sunday, he spoke of his "anxiety about my pastoral responsibilities" and asked that "you offer (your) suffering so this bishop may be a true shepherd."

It was a message delivered directly to the regular viewers of the Sunday morning broadcast, who are predominantly elderly and shut-ins. "He has a television presence that speaks of professional knowledge, yet he has never gone anywhere to learn," said Marilyn Vydra, his former communications director in Springfield, Mo., who coordinated daily 5-minute television programs the prelate taped for two local television stations.

"Archbishop Law can transcend the camera, to see the people he was talking to . . . not only in his eye contact but in what he said," said Gerald H. Palmer, production manager at station KMTC in Springfield, where the programs were taped. "He was able to be a very popular item because of the quality of what he did."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/30/1984.
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