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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

The spirit of Christmas


His answer should be at the rectory door this morning on steel runners, sporting a red velvet bow.

His question -- "What will they think of us?" -- has plagued Monsignor Peter V. Conley throughout this long and difficult year. The former executive editor of The Pilot first asked it aloud last spring when the Boston archdiocese was reeling with news of crimes by priests and coverups by bishops. He posed it again this month as fresh documentation of the evil done to children prompted him to ponder the impact of the crisis in the Catholic Church on young people coming of age in a time of scandal.

It is too soon to know how an entire generation will respond to revelations that Conley has called "demoralizing, dispiriting, and disheartening," but this Christmas morning hope was being delivered to the monsignor's front door wrapped in red ribbon.

Priests, like politicians, make an individual impression that often counters their momentary collective reputation. When Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley personified a parish priest, the poor fellow in the rectory down the block could only suffer by comparison, in much the way that the local congressman could never measure up to Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith in Washington. When a popular cultural image shifts so suddenly from respect to revulsion, it is disorienting as well as demoralizing. Conley tells of a priest who was shaken to be called a pedophile by a driver shouting through an open window.

What will they think of us? Indeed.

What some young Catholics at St. Jude's Parish in Norfolk think of Monsignor Conley will be wearing a tag this morning that reads "To Peter, From Santa." Conley has been their pastor through good times and bad -- and, it turns out, they have paid as much attention to his sermons as they have to newspaper headlines. For the second Advent in a row, Conley shared a childhood experience to spare his parishioners needless disappointment in a season that sometimes seems as much about giddy greed as genuine gift giving. As a boy, growing up in a Readville, Conley dreamed of the Flexible Flyer that would appear under the Christmas tree in answer to his prayers. He had asked before, but one year that sled would surely materialize between the wool socks and the hand-knit mittens with a tag that read "To Peter, From Santa."

One December, in the predawn light of a Christmas morning, there it was -- the sled whose color and contours he had memorized from the dog-eared pages of an old Sears Roebuck catalog. It was a Flexible Flyer. With a tag that read, "To Ned, From Santa."

On his brother's face, young Peter Conley saw the thrill that should have been his own. He occupied himself in silence with the orange he had retrieved from the foot of his Christmas stocking. At the end of a long winter afternoon, coasting down a neighborhood hill on the sled that Ned had been happy to share, the thrill was no less his. Ownership is overrated, concluded the boy who would one day be a priest.

Overrated, maybe, but an experience worth having, however belatedly, thought a few young parishioners. Monsignor Conley had had enough disappointments this year. His role at The Pilot had ended abruptly after he wrote an editorial suggesting it might be time to at least discuss priestly celibacy, a view Cardinal Bernard F. Law immediately disavowed. Surgery and treatments that continue this winter had interrupted a full return to parish life. If a Flexible Flyer would not make everything right, it would let one priest know exactly what the next generation thinks of him.

It was not an easy quest. But, what the hardware store once was to Christmas shopping, e-Bay is now. A few clicks of a mouse located a sled no longer manufactured. Under the cover of night, with Christmas snow in the forecast, the Secret Santas were leaving a boy his sled and a priest the promise of a doorstep and a future that can yield not just bold, black headlines but also bright, red bows.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/25/2002.
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