Mr. Catholic Boston, RIP
My friend Jim dropped by on a Sunday afternoon to let me know that Phil Crotty had died. We spent a few minutes swapping stories about Phil—who was a memorable man—and I found myself wondering why, although I missed him already, I was not saddened by his death.
Was it because Phil had lived a long, full life? That was certainly part of it. Phil was 89 years old, and they had been busy, productive years. Nor was his death a surprise; I had been told a few days earlier that he was in extremis.
Was it because I didn’t know him particularly well? It’s true that we had never had an extended conversation. But whenever I had spoken with Phil, I’d come away thinking that I should get to know him better. Now I knew I had missed my opportunity.
Yet when I heard the news of Phil’s death I didn’t feel grief so much as inspiration. Reflecting on his life—what I knew, what I had heard—I realized that as with any good story, one cannot fully appreciate the story without knowing how it ends. And in Phil’s case the inevitable ending—death—had to be viewed with the rock-solid, no-nonsense faith that the man himself embodied.
Several years ago Phil Crotty told an interviewer that he had made a few firm commitments in his youth. First he decided that he would always put the teachings, the discipline, and the needs of the Catholic Church ahead of his own interests. Then, while serving in the army and observing the behavior of some fun-loving comrades, he pledged that he would “never conform at all” to the standards of secular hedonism. There would be “no easement—zero” in his own moral standards.
If you conclude from those tidbits that Phil was strait-laced, you would be at least partly right. He was certainly old-fashioned and formal in his ways. (I never saw him without a necktie.) But by every available indication he enjoyed life tremendously. He had an unusually wide group of friends, drawn from all walks of life, spanning at least three generations. It’s noteworthy that four different people suggested that I should write something about his life, as a good-news story at a time when heaven knows we need good news.
A lifelong bachelor, Phil had commanded a good income during his professional career, and his expenses were modest. (He lived in the same apartment for more than 50 years.) So he was able to give generously to his favorite causes. For years he punched above his weight as a donor to schools, charitable organizations, and Catholic causes. In retirement, he spent countless hours as a volunteer and mentor. He taught Latin at St. John’s Seminary for several years, accepting no payment. He said he did it because he loved the language. That, too, was partly true.
The rest of the truth is that Phil loved the priesthood, and took a special interest in guiding young men toward a priestly vocation. One young priest recalled how, when he was wondering whether to make the commitment to enter the seminary, he spoke with Phil. “What’s stopping you?” Phil asked him. Well, the young man said, for one thing he had piled up some college debt. “If the debts were paid off, would you enter the seminary?” Phil wondered. The young man thought a bit, and said Yes. “Consider it done,” Phil told him.
When I read his obituary I was stunned to read that Phil Crotty was born in New York. Could that be true? I had thought of him as the quintessential Bostonian. Witness his reserved manner, his clipped speech, his enthusiasm for the Red Sox, and his educational background at Boston Latin School, Holy Cross, Harvard, Boston University, and Northeastern. (The degree from Oxford as anomalous.) He had a vast knowledge of the city’s history, and was known for giving his own specialized tours of Boston, concentrating on the sites that gave him opportunities to speak about the city’s Catholic heritage.
In fact Phil Crotty himself was a shining example of Boston’s Catholic heritage: a faithful, devoted, and active layman, thoroughly educated and steeped in the city’s rich culture, who saw it all—and made sense of it all—through the perspective of faith. Phil Crotty was Mr. Catholic Boston. With his passing, I don’t know who can claim that title.
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