Confessions of a Priest

At 11:15 a.m. on the second Sunday after Easter, some 850 people crowd into the Church of St. Francis Xavier on Pleasant Street in South Weymouth to hear Father Sean Connor celebrate family Mass. For the homily, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound, 36-year-old priest strides down into the center aisle and speaks, without notes, for half an hour. He's an unusually engaging and funny preacher. (After asking the congregation, “What's the First Commandment?” for example, he breaks the ensuing silence with: “There's no Eucharist for anyone unless you get it right.”) Through all the questions and the jokes, he is also giving them the gospel. Telling the story of the resurrection, he explains that the disciples didn't recognize Jesus at first because they thought he was dead, and they hadn't really believed that he would rise again. “Fear gets in the way. They can't see him because they're not expecting him. They think it's over, but it's only just begun.”

Despite his relatively young age; his blond, blue-eyed, boyish good looks; and the fact that he was ordained just last year, Father Sean has seen a lot of life. He's been a cop and a private detective; he's worked in a prison and at homes for the mentally retarded. One of his brothers, James, is a state police detective in Quincy; the other, Myles — who allegedly walked out of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1975 with a Rembrandt under his coat — is a career criminal. The story of Sean Connor's path to the priesthood provides rich material for his quick Irish wit. But even in telling that story, Father Sean lets his listener know that every detail is insignificant in light of this one central fact: God called him. “It's the question I always correct people on when they ask why a person chooses to become a priest,” he explains. “If you've chosen, then it's wrong. It's He who chooses you.”

Journalism about religion usually sweeps past this kind of statement without a second thought, and for good reason. It expresses an understanding of the priesthood in which the significance of personal history is embedded in a long view of the history of the church and of creation that seems too much to begin to describe in a magazine article.

Just as one priest's story is a small part of a larger story, this article is, too. The sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston archdiocese has dominated our news for most of the past six months. Those disclosures have made us all look hard at our notions of who priests are. For some, they prove the church is rotten to the core, its priests the foot soldiers or unwitting dupes of a corrupt hierarchy. For others, the scandals have reinforced a siege mentality.

They see the relentless media coverage as proof of secular America's hostility toward the work of good priests.

For the vast majority in the middle, however, the scandals have raised some basic questions about who priests are and what place they serve. Does it make sense to expect priests to provide moral guidance and teach theology, or is it enough that they dispense the sacraments? More fundamentally, who are these men? What, in the end, are priests for? I spent a month getting to know Father Sean Connor so that I could begin to understand who he is, in the hope of shedding some light on the larger question of who priests are at a time when most answers to that question are fraught with anger, fear, disappointment, or confusion.

Sean Connor was 14 years old the first time he saw the pope. On the morning of October 1, 1979, he rode the parish bus from St. Ann's-by-the-Sea in Marshfield to the Boston Common for a Mass celebrated by John Paul II. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out that day — more people than Sean Connor had ever seen in one place. For hours, he and the other kids from St. Ann's stood around in trash-bag raincoats waiting for the pontiff to arrive. “Then we saw the motorcade coming in. It was drenching rain but it didn't bother you 'cause you were a kid. It was fun. You were watching the popemobile fly by, and we were really only like 70 feet from the access road so we got a good look at him, and we were like, 'Wow.' And as the Mass began, it was your first taste of the surreal, beyond anything you knew or experienced. I remember his homily, his call to holiness, his direct address to young people.”

At the desk of his tiny office at St. Francis Xavier, Father Sean sits up straight and lowers his chin, dropping into his John Paul II imitation, a vaguely eastern European accent with roller-coaster stresses: “The reason I have come to Boston is to call you young people . . .” Father Sean says this message was more personal than any he had ever heard in his parish. “The pope said, 'Some of you are being called to married life. And some of you are being called to religious life. And for some of you young men, the Lord is calling you to priesthood.' At this point the message kind of penetrated, and I remember saying to myself, I want to be a priest because I'm feeling the call to priesthood. It was different from, I want to be a cop because my father's a cop. It really hit me hard. This man has invited me. This man, who speaks for God.”

Two years later, Sean's father, Milton Police Sergeant Myles “Joe” Connor Sr., died of a heart attack. “It in many ways destroyed my innocence. I put on a tough exterior that I didn't want penetrated because I didn't want to be hurt again. I grew up fast.” But he wasn't entirely bereft of father figures. The Connors were part of a tight-knit group of families in Marshfield who pitched in to help. His friends' dads guided him through the process of buying his first car and helped him cut wood for the winter.

Church remained important, too. The autumn after Sean's dad died, Father Pat Gilmore arrived at St. Ann's. Father Pat always had cookies, jokes, and kind words for the kids, just like Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley in The Bells of Saint Mary's. Plus, he was an “Irish squeezebox” virtuoso. “It was easy to develop a relationship with him. Not just because he was there to entertain you, although he was very entertaining, but because he was real.” As Sean grew up, he stayed close to the priest, often helping him run errands, make hospital visits, and serve Mass.

“I used to love it because you were that much closer to everything. You started to think differently and pray differently. There was an attraction to that life. I never told anyone that I thought about priesthood. I never even talked about it with my best friends. It was just something that I kept covered because I was always looking for the job that would save the world — fight crime, and get rid of poverty, and everything else.”

Dropping out of Northeastern after just one year, Sean Connor tried to save the world by working at Cardinal Cushing School and other organizations that served the mentally retarded. He was a private investigator for three years and eventually became a Marshfield cop and the town's director of emergency management. By 1995, he'd built a good life for himself. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a shiny blue Ford Bronco, and a bachelor pad he shared with another cop in the old Fairview Inn.

He also kept volunteering at his home parish — teaching religious education, serving as a lector, even mopping the floors. Then one long weekend he went on a retreat to Stonehill College with the Holy Cross Fathers. “It was really the first time that I had stopped — since my dad died — just doing things, trying to achieve things, pleasing people, and being the good son. The first time I got away from everything — cell phone, beeper, car.”

During the three-day retreat he went to confession and met with a priest who asked him the simple question: “Why are you here?”

“I don't know,” Sean responded. “I'm thinking about getting married in a couple years, and I'm just letting everything out for a few days.”

The priest asked again: “Why are you here?”

“I don't know,” Sean said again, feeling a little bit uncomfortable now.

“What are you going to do with your life? Are you happy?” asked the priest.

To his own surprise, Sean answered, “No. I'm miserable.” Remembering that day now, he explains: “I wasn't in despair miserable, but everything was in order the way it was supposed to be, and I wasn't fulfilled, and I didn't have any understanding of how I would be fulfilled.”

The priest said, “Why don't you go into the chapel, get down on your knees, and ask God what He wants you to do with your life?”

Sean thought that was the stupidest thing he ever heard.

“So I went on my knees, and I prayed. And there was no one else in the chapel, just me and the Lord. I was staring at the tabernacle. And I said, 'What do you want me to do? What did you make me to do?' And it was that same message I heard in 1979. I want you to be a priest. And I just remember filling all up. And then I'm like, Ohhhh . . . . All of these things started to make sense to me. I got very emotional and cried in the chapel. But I thought I was too old. I thought, I'm 29 years old, everything's settled, I'm finally where I want to be. And now I start over again?”

When his brother James picked him up from the retreat the next day, he cried some more. Then he went to St. John's Seminary to speak with the vocational director. “I met with him secretly for the next couple of months. I didn't tell anyone for a long time. I couldn't be, like, called to someone's house for a domestic and have them say, 'Aren't you the cop that wants to be a priest?'”

In the same way that Christ died and was resurrected, according to the teachings of the church, the priest dies to his old life and rises to a new life at ordination. Father Sean works hard to keep his old and new lives as one. He is still close to his former girlfriend, his old squad partner, and the Marshfield police chief, and he regularly sheds the collar and dons “real people clothes” to hang out with his old friends. His cell phone vibrates more or less constantly. During one interview, we were interrupted by two calls from two different people asking why he'd failed to show up for two separate dinner parties. He apologized profusely. He hadn't noticed he was triple-booked.

A lot of the world isn't so friendly right now. Father Sean says that sometimes, when he goes out to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper, total strangers will notice his collar and turn their backs or look at him with disgust. “It's understandable on one level, but I realize they're not reacting to me personally,” he says. He says he will not allow the scandals to bring fear into his relationships with the children of his parish. One Sunday after a Mass in which he had invited kids from the congregation to sit on the altar for his homily, a little old lady in a gray flowered dress approaches him to say she has been praying for him and all the other “healthy, normal priests.” Given the general atmosphere of suspicion, such effusive reassurance comes across as something of a mixed blessing.

Father Sean does not believe the clerical scandals justify general suspicion of priests or any challenge to church doctrine or authority. “Because these [priests] were supposed to teach this and be this, and they didn't reach that goal, does it make the teaching on the priesthood wrong? If we had flipped around the hierarchy and had the people telling the bishops what to do, is that gonna fix it? No. People should not confuse the actions of some people with teaching authority and what is true.”

He points to Cardinal Bernard Law's plans for an institute to study child abuse as an appropriate response to the scandals. But he says the most important change that he and every other Catholic must make is “to turn back to the Lord, seek the things of the kingdom. Not to overspiritualize it, but there's the answer. If that hurt can help us all learn how to be good, to help us turn toward the victim, toward the perpetrator, toward each other — and be different, understand who we are, how God has made us — then that's the change we need.”

Father Sean's opinions about the scandals express a basic Catholic teaching that, in the natural order of things, every person is created good; human beings may judge one another's actions, but not themselves, as good or bad. Moral theology helps Christians to become more like Christ, in whom person and action were perfectly united. But in a fallen world, no one is ever fully perfected.

So, although it is theoretically possible for a person to become so “disordered” by wrong actions that he or she is truly bad, only God knows the soul, so only God can judge between good and bad people. “You have to always be open to the idea that no matter how bad a person is, God can always change him,” Father Sean explains.

Father Sean says the dogmatic distinction between person and action is not just a strategy for defending Cardinal Law, but has always shaped how he ministers to anyone who comes to him facing some sort of moral challenge. “It's important to think about big issues, to consider the broad question of what you would say if someone came to you and said, 'I'm thinking of having an abortion.' But in that situation, you don't only look at the action, you look at the person. And in the course of the conversation you understand the person. Too much of the [discussion about priests' sexual abuse] is focused on action, not person.” (Later, Father Sean says he wants it to be clear that he believes abortion is wrong.)

Despite the turmoil of these past few months, Father Sean says the scandals will not substantially affect his ministry or the place of the priesthood in the church. In one of the few moments when he sounds frankly defensive, Father Sean says: “Dogma doesn't change. That's why they call it dogma.”

Father Sean learned about dogma at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. He often talks about how much he loved his classes, and his eyes light up whenever he says, “St. Thomas Aquinas.” One night he invites me to go back with him for a visit. After dinner in the seminary's grand Oxford-style dining hall, a steady stream of students and faculty come to our table to talk with him.

When Father Sean introduces me as a reporter, there's a brief flurry of panic. Once satisfied that I'm not from the Boston Globe, which broke the priest-sex story, they're a little more at ease. “We hate the Globe,” one says — not angrily, just in the way a kid at Boston College might dis Boston University. “The Globe is evil.”

“Do you read the Globe?” I ask.

“Not anymore,” he answers, and then a seminarian from Louisiana interrupts to say he got a care package in the mail today and threatens to share his fresh pork rinds with everyone.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that there are TV trucks parked in front of the cardinal's offices on the hill above St. John's. When the table falls quiet, one guy says to me, “Nice place here, huh? You like it?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Ya wanna buy it?”

Led by Father Sean, the whole table hisses at the joke, a reference to reports that the property may have to be sold to pay the archdiocese's legal bills.

In all the time we've spent together, this is the happiest, most relaxed and confident I've seen Father Sean. It's clear that his priesthood is supported by a rich network of personal connections that tie together even the most disparate strands of his life. One of his closest friends on the faculty, Father Bill Kelly, drops by to rib him with a running joke: “I'll never forget the time your brother sicced his dogs on my dad,” says Kelly. Father Bill's dad, it turns out, was Father Sean's brother Myles's parole officer.

Before I leave the seminary that night, Father Sean pulls out a large white envelope full of photographs he wants to show me. There are pictures from his childhood, bent at the corners and faded with age. There are others from a mission to South America, on retreat in Assisi, clowning on the seminary campus. As he flips through the snapshots, it strikes me that this is what he saved for our last conversation: not some final message about the true meaning of priesthood, but a picture show of the people he loves.

The final shots are from his visit to the Vatican two years ago, when he and two other seminarians sang the Mass in the pope's private chapel. He lays out three 8-by-10 color close-ups in sequence: Father Sean holding the pope's hand, kissing the pope's ring, looking into the pope's eyes.

When I ask what was happening inside him when those pictures were being taken, he looks down at the triptych and says two things that express two aspects of his core identity as a priest — what he thinks is true, and how he relates to people. First he says: “You feel so close to the whole understanding of the Holy Father's mission and to the process of apostolic succession. It's beyond powerful.” Then Father Sean adds: “When you look into those beautiful blue eyes that he has, you're just caught there.”

During a conversation the following week, he reminds me that “an hour or an article or three months or three articles does not sum up a priest, does not sum up a person.” It's a point well taken. I did not intend to explain Father Sean Connor here. I tried to raise questions about him — questions that apply to every priest in the Roman Catholic Church, and should be asked of them and about them.

Why is he a priest? What can he teach you? Would you want him to baptize your child, hear your confession, bury your mother? Who is this man who claims to speak for God? And who do you want him to be?