‘Why are you here?’ the priest asked; after a bit, Sean Connor figured it out

Sean Connor is an unlikely priest. The son of a Milton police officer, the brother of a state trooper, a former Marshfield cop himself, the brother of a legendary Boston art thief and self-professed “President of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a counselor who calls the clergy sex abuse scandal “perverse and evil,” he is the antithesis of today’s public perception of what it means to be a priest. And yet in so many ways, he embodies the resurrection of the church from its latest crisis, a hope for the future.

Born in gritty Brockton, raised in Marshfield with close ties to Dorchester, Father Connor years ago was heading toward marriage, kids, and a life in a cruiser. A papal appeal changed all that, an about-face that took about 17 years to sink through his thick Irish skin. Now pastor of St. Ann’s Parish on Neponset Avenue in Dorchester and a chaplain with the Boston Police Department, he realizes he has known since he was a young man that there was a higher calling.

At 14, “after doing all the crazy stuff you would only tell in confession,” Connor had a come-to-Jesus moment on rainy Boston Common while wearing a trash bag raincoat and listening to Pope John Paul II’s homily during that historic Mass. “Some of you are being called to married life,” Connor recalls the pontiff saying. “And for some, the Lord is calling you to the priesthood.”

The call stopped Connor in his tracks, but like most youths, he had a life to pursue until there was a second knock at the door years later, actually more of a battering ram. At 29, Connor, a blue-eyed, boyish-looking man, was walking lockstep in his late father’s footsteps. He was a private investigator, a Marshfield police officer, and the director of the town’s emergency management office. He was driving a Ford Bronco, dating an attractive Fidelity financial manager, and living in a bachelor pad. Sean Connor was poised for a prized life in criminal justice. Nothing would stop him. Nothing. Yet something was profoundly missing.

And so he attended a three-day retreat with the Holy Cross fathers at Stonehill College in Easton, hoping to find himself. He was stunned at what he discovered, as he related years ago in a Boston Magazine piece. Intercession can do just that.

Connor recalls a priest at the retreat asking him, “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Why are you here?” the priest persisted.

“I don’t know,” Connor said, somewhat perplexed.

“What are you doing with your life? Are you happy?” the priest inquired.

“No, I’m miserable,” Connor answered, stunned that the words slipped out so freely.

“Then why don’t you go into the chapel, get down on your knees, and ask God what He wants for your life?”

At first, Connor thought it was a dumb idea. An hour later, after soulful prayer and some tears, he walked out of the chapel a man reborn and on an enlightened mission. Months later, he quit his police job, and applied to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, assuming the news would shock his family and friends. Little did he know.

“Most everyone here thinks you should be a priest,” Connor recalls a colleague saying. “Well, no one ever told me,” he countered, noting he always thought his more principled brother James, now a state police sergeant stationed at the State House, would be the priest of the family.

Sean M. Connor has always had an ear to the ground, even when he’s not listening. His father, Joe, a respected Milton police sergeant who died of a heart attack when the son was 15, taught him that. “My dad was gentle and kind, a bit of an Irish poet, and he always encouraged me to observe life carefully, seeking the best possible in goodness and love,” he says.

Growing up in Marshfield in the 1970s and ‘80s, on the lip of the Irish Riviera, meant a simple, idyllic life surrounded by the sea, lush saltmarshes and working class families —far from the crime enticements and temptations of the city. Connor was raised in a fully Irish family; his father and Dorchester-born mother, Sally (Coyne), were first generation Irish with farming roots in Galway. His paternal grandparents, William, who delivered oil by horse and buggy in Southie, and Catherine Holloran, ultimately lived in the shadows of St. Ann’s church after emigrating, and often doted on the Connor children, as did maternal grandmother Nora (O’Sullivan). Connor’s maternal grandfather, James, died before he was born.

In all ways, Connor’s father was his hero and his mother the centerboard of this extended, old-school, immigrant family that included a range of siblings: in addition to James, sisters Patricia, now retired in Florida, Catherine and Erin, who work at South Shore Hospital; and older brother Myles, who at 69 has more Google hits than most his age. Myles, as many know, was a rock guitarist who played with doo-wop groups like Sha Na Na and opened for artist Roy Orbison, then turned his attention to crime, in particular art theft, a life that included the taking of a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He also claims to know who stole hundreds of millions of dollars in art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. His exploits from the stage, to drugs, to rock ‘n’ roll, to prison were recounted in his autobiography, “The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller and Periodical Son.” Hollywood has bought the movie rights to his life.

“That don’t impress me much,” Sean Connor would say, in parroting the ‘98 Shania Twain hit. Myles was arrested again last month in Woonsocket, R.I., on conspiracy and first-degree robbery charges outside a convenience store. “My brother was so talented that he could have anything in life,” says his younger sibling. “He had perfect SAT scores and was self-taught in five or six languages. My dad, deeply hurt by Myles’s life in crime, always told us that we should love him, and I do.”

His father’s death left a void in Father Connor’s life that took almost two decades to fill, but that dutifully kept him in search of a calling in life. “It was devastating. I shut down when dad died; it took me a long time to figure it all out. Once death comes, you can never have that person back. You can love them, you can retain beautiful memories, reflect on eternal life, but you can never have that person back. Dad always told us that he loved us. I still miss him.”

As a man of cloth, rather than one carrying a firearm, Connor, 47, feels closer today to his father. Each step in his uncommon life, some of them painful, has had a purpose, he says.

After graduating from Marshfield High School where he toiled off-hours in local restaurants, was involved in art and music programs, and played little organized sports, “growing into a six-foot, two-inch frame years later,” he attended Northeastern to study criminal justice, then left school to pursue counseling for the disabled and police work in Marshfield. He earned a degree later.

“I know the police world,” he says with self-assurance. “I grew up in a police family. It’s in my blood. But it always seemed more of a job, than a calling. It wasn’t for me forever.”

After studies at St. John’s Seminary and ordination at 31, the late bloomer in the ministry was assigned to St. Francis Xavier Church in Weymouth, until the priest abuse scandal hit the front pages. With a background in police work and experience in counseling, he was swiftly hand-picked to work out of embattled Cardinal Bernard Law’s office and later with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, supporting the victims and families, and attempting to reconcile with the faithful a tragedy that still slices deep into the church’s identity.

“We’re made for goodness, not evil or madness,” says Connor, reflecting on this afternoon in late July. “I would say a great evil penetrated the church. When you take advantage of a minor entrusted to your care for sexual gratification, it’s a sin and a crime, and there is something evil there. It’s not just perverse, it’s evil. What happened was barbaric.”

Such candid talk has begun to break down barriers between the priesthood and parishioners—a relationship, he admits, that took another symbolic hit with the recent Penn State scandal, conviction of predator and former coach Jerry Sandusky, and tough NCAA sanctions on the university. Many in anger are left wondering today if the church got a free pass.

Hardly, suggests Connor emphatically. “The church crisis continues to be lived out for this generation. There were a lot of people hurt, and we have much more work to do to insure that this will never happen again. We must never forget.” Connor continues that rehabilitation work today, meeting with victims and their families, encouraging them to come forward for healing and the unyielding prosecution of offenders.

Coming full circle four years ago in the Dorchester family tree, Connor was assigned to St. Ann’s church where he works closely with immigrant families, and yes, police officers. As a Catholic Boston Police Department chaplain along with Father John Connolly of nearby St. Brendan’s parish, he ministers to his brothers on the force, helping them sort out the viciousness of the crime they fight and the pressures in their personal lives. He and Connolly have also travelled to Dublin to assist in police counseling there. In this mission, Connor travels to Ireland yearly, and he has applied for Irish citizenship.

Any regrets in life? Does he wish he were back in uniform?

“No,” says Connor. “This is exactly where the Lord has called me. I need to be here. I always saw providence and grace in my life, and I will always be grateful to those who have trusted me to work with them. I understand the church crisis and the damage it has caused. I’m afraid for the church, if what we’re doing now doesn’t work. We’re in a new time of crisis as we attempt to realign parishes as is necessary, given the present realities. One has to renew things or lose things, and I fear we’re going to lose potential. Church now is secondary with many individuals after family, sports, and social life. That needs to change. I want to encourage people to come back to church, to a place of renewal. I want people to experience the Lord. I want them to come home.

“God is here and waiting.”

Sean Connor— seen by many as a role model of what is right about the church today—says he lives by the Suscipe, the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola— a petition, he hopes, that defines the priesthood. He recites it by rote on cue:

“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty.
“My memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
“All I have and call my own
“You have given all to me.
“To you, Lord, I return it.
“Everything is yours; do with it what you will
“Give me your love and your grace
“That is enough for me.”

What’s enough for Father Sean Connor is to know there is a fulfilled plan for his life, that he has faithfully answered a call, one that began with another priest asking, “Why are you here?”

Greg O’Brien, a regular contributor to the Boston Irish Reporter, is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications consulting firm on Cape Cod.