Callahan Captured Most of Cushing: the Voice, the Humor and Perhaps the Sorrow, Too

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

His neighbors and friends in South Boston considered Richard J. Cushing (1895-1970) in his youth to be a natural-born politician. He was charming, funny, street smart, and had a knack for public speaking.

According to one story that may not be factual, but is certainly symbolically accurate, the young Cushing was campaigning for a legislative candidate from the back of a wagon one day when a priest from his parish, Gate of Heaven, pulled him aside and put it to him: "Make up your mind! Either you're going to be a priest or a politician."

Cushing became a priest, but not just any priest. With energy and charisma to spare, and with a Midas-like touch in fundraising, he rose quickly through the ranks of the rapidly expanding Archdiocese. At age 44, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Boston. By 49, he was the Archbishop, and at 63, the Cardinal Archbishop, a prince of the Church, advisor to the Pope and his minions.

In a way that is hard for us to imagine today, Cardinal Cushing was a huge presence in the public life of Boston. The local media covered his speeches at church and non-church events alike. His photo appeared regularly in the newspapers. (He in the grandstand at Fenway with a group of nuns was a staple.) One radio station even broadcast his recitation of the rosary every night.

His closeness to the patriarch of the Kennedy family, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, and his golden boy son, Senator John F. Kennedy, also drew a lot of attention.

Cushing had a very distinctive and powerful voice, a deep, nasally rasp that could reach the back of any room, usually without aid of a microphone. And his enunciation was as unique as his tone: he preferred to draw out certain words and to emphasize syllables not often accented in normal speech.

In Cushing's mouth, "Dearly Beloved" became "Deeeeeeeeerly Be-luuuv-ED!"

So, when the late Michael Callahan, longtime member of the Massachusetts Governor's Council, former Massachusetts Assistant Racing Commissioner, former state senatorial aide, and all-around good guy and Great American, began his unofficial, volunteer career as a master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker at charitable and social events throughout eastern Massachusetts, his decision to make an imitation of Cushing part of his repertoire was kind of inspired.

The Cardinal was dead by then, but his memory loomed large in the consciousness of Greater Bostonians. His voice still echoed in our ears.

Callahan would launch into Cushing-speak at this or that event and there would be instant recognition and amusement in the audience.

I cannot recall one of Callahan's Cushing bits in its entirety, but they always seemed to begin with him in the slow, serious pose of a clergyman earnestly addressing his flock; transition to some Professor Irwin Corey-ish mish-mash of homiletics and liturgical nonsense; and end on a booming crescendo of Callahan-Cushing simultaneously asking for donations and crowing about how much money he rakes in.

Were it not for Callahan's obvious self-delight in sending up the Cardinal, and his light-crazy touch, it might have been outrageous.

Beyond the dead-on imitation, the thing that really struck me about Callahan's Cushing was how he managed to capture something of the Cardinal's actual puckish humor. Cushing was a true man of God, a person who practiced Christian charity and alms-giving throughout his life, but you never got the idea he took himself too seriously.

Yet behind the mirthful glint in his eye, and lurking in the depths of his care-worn, raspy voice and asthma-tormented breath, one could detect also a certain sadness, or disappointment in the human condition.

Callahan the clown had that, too, although not to the degree the Cardinal did.

Reflecting on Richard Cardinal Cushing, the justly revered Archbishop of Boston, and thinking of the demonic crimes perpetrated against children and the incalculable harm inflicted on the Roman Catholic Church during my lifetime, much of it by priests Cushing himself ordained in the Fifties and the Sixties, I can't help but wonder if part of Cushing's sorrow came from an awareness that some of his brother priests were total frauds.

I'm not saying he knew there were sex fiends and criminals in the ranks, only that he had to have sensed there was something seriously, profoundly amiss in some of them. He knew what a good priest was; he could not help but perceive the opposite. That knowledge, in my opinion, would have been like an infection in a conscience as exquisite as his.

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