After having avoided talking about his life in the church for much of the campaign, Mitt Romney’s nominating convention began on Thursday with an invocation from Kenneth Hutchins, his former counselor in the Mormon church who succeeded the candidate as the chief spiritual authority in Boston in the 1990s.
Hutchins, a retired policeman and former lay cleric in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told a reporter recently that Romney used the Keys of the Priesthood in his church to “set apart” men for special service. “He laid his hands on my head,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins was followed on stage by Thursday by House Speaker John Boehner, who set Romney apart by formally naming him the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Next came Grant Bennett, another close associate of Romney in the church who offered remarks.
Bennett, a counselor to the candidate when Romney served as a Mormon bishop in Belmont in the 1980s, said he was “blessed to spend thousand of hours over many years" with Romney, time he referred to as “wonderful" and "glorious.” That met with scattered applause. Bennett talked about how they embraced Christ’s teachings and about their actions as lay clergy. He also told the story, familiar in the Belmont church, of Romney calling at 6 a.m. to discuss church business. (“Mitt Romney was my alarm clock.”) For Romney, Bennett said, church business consisted of helping members of his church who physically injured, or single mothers in need of assistance.
“He didn’t discuss questions of theology,” Bennett said, adding that Romney followed the belief that “pure religion is to visit the fatherless and the widows in their moments of affliction.”
He said that Romney didn’t discuss those cases publicly because he believed in honoring the privacy of the people involved. For years, he has also been concerned that a discussion of his faith would promote a backlash among those suspicious of Mormonism, or a focus on some less flattering examples of his exercising of authority as a bishop.
Bennett talked, for example, about how “Mitt provided food and housing,” to people in need in his congregation. Later, as a stake president, Romney used his office to provide church resources to illegal immigrants so that they could afford lawyers.
“He led by example,” said Bennett.
He then introduced, Ted Oparowski, a retired firefighter, who spoke movingly about how Romney helped him and his wife when they lost their son, David.
“David’s story is a part of Mitt’s story,” Oparowski said, describing the time Romney visited their dying son and helped the terminally ill 14-year-old write a will. When David died, Romney delivered his eulogy.
Pam Finlayson, another former member of Romney’s church in Boston, also attested to how caring and compassionate the candidate was when she lost her daughter. “I know him to be a loving father a man of faith and a caring and compassionate friend,” she said.
During a recent visit to the Belmont chapel, in a building that prominently featured a depiction of Jesus instructing a rich young man to give his treasure to the poor, Bennett, a former Bain colleague of Romney who is articulate and affable, described how hard Romney worked to help the people in his flock. He talked about how hard Romney tried to connect with his congregation and how strong his faith was, once asking holders of the priesthood to lay healing hands on him when a serious leg infection climbed up his calf’s veins.
After Romney’s service as stake president, or chief spiritual authority, in Boston came to an end, he ran for office against Ted Kennedy. But even as a candidate, Romney sought a formal connection to his church. After a Sunday sacrament meeting, Romney loitered behind in the Belmont chapel outside his old office, where Bennett had become the new bishop.
“Bishop,” Romney said, “I want you to know that I don’t have a calling and am very willing to do whatever you ask me to do.”