NORFOLK -- He looks faintly cherubic, with sandy-colored hair, sky-blue eyes and a saddle of pale freckles over an upturned nose.
Not at all your average revolutionary.
But the Rev. Vincent Connery, the 33-year-old pastor of the small church of the Sacred Heart here, has found himself in the center of a growing clerical controversy by calling for priests to go on strike in support of women's ordination.
Priests on a picket line?
"What I meant was some kind of demonstration of solidarity on this particular issue by priests. It could be saying, 'On this particular Sunday, we're not going to celebrate the liturgy.' And"--he shrugs, digging his left index finger into his right palm--"let the chips fall where they may.
"Women can say all they want--and they have--on this issue, but it has no effect whatsoever. So the only power the priests have is to shut down the machinery."
It's time, he says, "for the slaves to revolt."
Connery is no kook. He's sincere, soft-spoken and intensely dedicated to the cause of permitting women to become priests.
The question of women's ordination has been gaining support among Catholics in America during the last decade, but is still the subject of heated debate. The Quixote Center, a Mount Rainier, Md.-based Catholic social justice group, has commissioned a series of Gallup polls on the issue. Last year, 44 percent of those asked favored women's ordination as opposed to 29 percent in 1979. Groups such as "Priests for Equality" and the Manhattan-based Women's Ordination Conference, founded in 1975, have also been involved in lobbying for the change. In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane made headlines after she spoke out on the subject in her welcoming speech to Pope John Paul II at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The issue has remained a distressing one the pontiff, who has continued to uphold the church's ban on women priests. Earlier this month, John Paul II saw 23 American bishops in Rome and instructed them specifically to withdraw their support from any person or group that promotes the ordination of women.
Responding to this latest dictum, Connery fired off an open letter to the Virginia-Pilot, saying American Catholics should refuse to be intimidated by a "Vatican vendetta" and said a selective strike by priests "might not be a bad idea."
The letter prompted a newspaper article that prompted a wire service story that led to two television talk shows and now the letters and phone calls are coming in, and mild-mannered Vince Connery, who for the last seven years has led a life of service and contemplation, finds himself an unlikely candidate to be involved in a Catholic cause cele bre.
He sits in his small office, with the worn red rug and the bare gray metal desk and the aging air conditioner humming. On the wall is a needlepoint: "If Moses Were A Committee, The Israelites Would Still Be in Egypt." The bookshelf overflows with scholarly tomes and a copy of Andrew Greeley's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Catholic Church But Were Too Pious To Ask."
"It's been simmering a long time," Connery says, slipping a finger under the frayed white clerical collar encircling his thin neck. "When I was in the seminary, I got to know quite a number of women who were studying for the ministry. They lived next door." It was the early '70s and Connery was studying at a theological college in Berkeley, Calif. "They were Presbyterian and Episcopalian. At that time, women were not admitted to the priesthood, either. I've been involved in this issue since then."
Yes, he says, his militant stand on the subject is unusual. So far, he hasn't elicited much support from fellow priests.
"Partly because I think a lot of priests don't think about it. But partly because we do have something to lose by going public in a confrontational way. Sanctions can be applied. You're told you may not speak about it. You get on somebody's hit list. One of the points of discernment now in terms of candidates for being ordained bishops is if there's even a whiff of support for women's ordination in their background, that's going to knock them out of candidacy."
Connery hasn't heard from his superior, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, in Richmond. He's not worried about being silenced.
"I think we can take on this issue because it's not like trying to convince people to let go of their personal prejudices. I think society in terms of institutional structures has gone a lot further than the church has in trying to remedy the institutionalized sexism. It's the old thing that Martin Luther King said, 'The law can't make you love me, but it can make you treat me fairly.' Of course, the comeback of the church on this is that it's not a question of fairness because no one has a right to be a priest."
He smiles, crossing his leg. "We keep being asked to pray for vocations. We need more priests. I believe that a vocation is a call from God. We have all these people out there saying, 'I have this call from God' and if they are males they're allowed to discern the call, but if they're women, we say, 'That's not God's plan. You couldn't possibly have a call because you're a woman.' "
He smiles ruefully. "It could be a case where our prayers are being answered but we just don't like the answer."
But by 1990, he says, the shortage of Roman Catholic priests will become "disastrous."
"My fear is that we'll say, 'Okay, we'll have married priests,' and we'll have, if you pardon the expression, skirted the issue.
"There are places now where the clergy shortage is just driving people into all kinds of stress-related diseases. Alcoholism and heart disease being a couple of the big ones. In 10 years, as Father X is heading off to the detox center and Father Y is coming out of his heart surgery, then they're going to change the law on celibacy."
Will he marry?
"I don't know. I'm for optional celibacy. I think this is another one of those things which is a domestic argument that we're putting a lot of energy into which we all should just get behind us. Let's have married priests, celibate priests, men and women, and let's go deal with the real issues out there."
He goes to his desk and pulls out a stack of letters. Most of them, he says, are supportive.
One is from a woman minister from nearby Virginia Beach.
"As a lifelong member of the Anglican communion," she writes, "I struggled to escape the conviction that I had a vocation to the priesthood, and was fortunate enough to meet understanding priests and bishops who assisted me in my journey. My sisters in the Roman communion will be strengthened by men such as you who are neither threatened by a feminine presence nor coerced into silence by authority."
Another woman from Oklahoma: "Until women can fulfill their duties as nuns, they will certainly not be raised to a higher position. Instead of organizing strikes, you should be organizing prayer groups."
There's a typewritten one on the bottom of the pile. Unsigned.
"There are more horses arses than horses."
Connery has just finished saying the 12:15 mass and he bounds into the office, cheeks flushed, white silk vestments rustling. There are some women, he says, who would like to talk about sexism in the Catholic church.
Downstairs, in the wallpapered dining room of the small rectory, seven parishioners are seated on the heavy, carved maple dining chairs.
"I just became a Catholic two years ago, and I was shocked, to say the least, at the minor role that women played in the church," says Virginia Smith, a 65-year old retired university professor and former Episcopalian. "I was really naive. I even thought nuns were ordained."
Snickers all around.
"Historically, I think the church has exhibited nothing but hatred toward women," says Susan Avery, a Norfolk psychotherapist. "I don't want to get into it, but there's the cult of the Virgin Mary, honored only because of her virginity, having overthrown Eve who was the cause of all this."
"The church has a woman problem," says parishioner Ann Prince. "I don't think it works anymore in this country. Overall, humanity has arrived at a vision of man and woman that is more mature than earlier and I feel that we are there and I just don't know if Rome knows it."
"A woman who did serve in this diocese as a pastoral associate is presently in the Episcopal seminary," says Sister Mary Joan Kentz, 64-year-old former dean of students at Trinity College in Washington, who now serves as Connery's pastoral associate. "She just got so tired waiting for things to change."
Connery gets behind the wheel of his faded green sedan and drives to a nearby shopping center for lunch. He asks for a booth and orders crab chowder and black coffee. Then he talks about his new role as a maverick.
"I feel somewhat nervous about it," he says.
He is the oldest of three boys. His youngest brother was killed in a car accident five years ago. His parents live in Northern Virginia, his father having retired from the Federal Aviation Administration. His other brother works as a paramedic in Fairfax County. Connery graduated from Virginia Wesleyan College, then attended Georgetown University for graduate work in philosophy, then went to Berkeley, then to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He originally entered the seminary at the age of 14 ("a belated vocation") and left when he was 17. "Not because I didn't want to be a priest, but I could not see continuing to live in the seminary."
He got involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement and registered as a conscientious objector.
"Temperamentally, I try to avoid confrontation," he says. "But I feel this is absolutely right. I feel my whole training in the Catholic church has been along the lines of doing what's right. I feel this is right.
"I feel good about saying what's on my mind. It's satisfying in that sense, but you're also subject to all sorts of accusations. That's not very much fun. I feel like I'm articulating what's on the mind of a lot of people."
Connery looks tired. There are dark circles under his eyes. He says it's a permanent condition. "It gets a lot of sympathy," he laughs.
Connery says the word "ambition" is never mentioned among priests. When asked, he says he'd like to be a bishop. Maybe even a cardinal.
"When my generation--both in the church and the world--is taking the helm," he says, "I want to be a part of it."