His hair and beard, once salt and pepper, are all salt now. But the man can close his eyes and suddenly he is 5 again, back in his devoutly Irish Catholic home, where it is Christmas Eve 1949.
Christmas at home meant family time and prayer and visits to the crèche at the parish church, where one day he would serve as an altar boy at midnight Mass. But not now. Now, he and his siblings are upstairs, tucked into their beds.
His dad and uncle have been out picking over what is left on the Christmas tree lots. They will buy two or three and drill holes in the best one, using branches from the others to fill in the bare spots, constructing the perfect tree from imperfection.
His uncle then will connect the Lionel set so the kids can play with the train as it runs around the tree – that is, if they can first wrestle the controls from their father’s brother.
“It was sort of a magical moment,’’ the man recalled this week. “We went to bed and there were no decorations and you came down in the morning and the tree was there and the train and all of the wreaths.’’
His grandparents lived just a few blocks away and one uncle had nine kids, so there was laughter and love and family on Christmas, back when it was more holy day than holiday.
Even then, his sister Mary would later recall, he preferred books to baseball. The young boy could lose himself in the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
So it is hardly a surprise that the man grew up to become one of Boston’s most powerful and respected leaders.
His early foundation in language and social justice propelled him to the top of his profession and recently he has become an important player on a world stage.
In the mid-1970s, he served as executive director of a center for poor Spanish people and slept on the floor of a crime-ridden building in Washington, D.C., a home he helped save for refugees from poverty and war in Central America.
He once gave a speech about human rights to an audience packed with Latin American diplomats who — one by one — walked out on him. He never regretted it.
His career was in full ascendancy in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo roared through the US Virgin Islands, where he was stationed then, destroying schools and hospitals. He secured radio time and commandeered one of the few working telephones, raising millions to rebuild. The ferocious winds blew away all of the vegetation, but by Christmas it was back and lush. “A symbol of hope,’’ he called it.
Few have seen all the facets of this holiday — its grief and its glory — as he has. He knows that for all the bright lights and the tinsel, Christmas can be, for many, a time of crisis. Repeatedly, he has been sent by his superiors to try to help heal some of the most grievous ones.
“A lot of people don’t have anything to be happy about,’’ Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said this week at his South End rectory. “So you try and help people see Christmas as a time of hope, and the message is that our God is close to us and wants to be close to us and loves us. And that we are connected to him and each other.
“But materialism is a very poisonous message and yet that’s what’s out there as the religious message is eclipsed. So I think as a priest, as a bishop, you try to bring people that sense of hope; that sense of God’s love made manifest at Christmas.’’
So that is the message that the leader of Boston’s Catholics will carry with him as he celebrates Mass Wednesday at midnight at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Then he will send his congregants out to greet Christmas morning at home, where doubtlessly some of them will have toy trains running around brightly decorated trees when the children awake at dawn.
But too many won’t, and O’Malley knows that well.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.