CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He started his Charlotte career in 1974 as the first priest ordained in the brand new Catholic diocese here. He ends it this month as pastor of St. Matthew, the largest Catholic parish in the United States.
At 75, Monsignor John McSweeney will soon leave the affluent Charlotte neighborhood of Ballantyne — where this parish named for the patron saint of bankers was built — and move to Jamaica or Haiti, where he hopes to spend his retirement years living with and ministering to the poorest of the poor.
"I'm going to try to walk in the sandals of the Lord," he says.
He exits Charlotte with a wish that the city had more affordable housing and less traffic congestion, but says a more diverse Queen City has done a better job in recent years in integrating its various cultures and developing more green space.
His parting advice for Charlotte and its leaders: "Remember that it is a city for all people, not just a select few."
On Sunday, McSweeney will give his farewell homily, or sermon, at St. Matthew — he plans a message of thanks to his flock of 10,000-plus families.
The native New Yorker is also not shy about sharing his strong opinions about what needs to change in the church and the 46-county diocese he's served for more than 40 years. (St. Matthew is the 12th parish he's led.)
During an interview with the Charlotte Observer, he spoke candidly about a Catholic Church he thinks has often put the Book of Law before the Book of Love.
Echoing Pope Francis — the fifth pontiff to reign during McSweeney's time as a priest — he'd like the church and the diocese to be more about hospitality and less about judgment. That means, he said, being more welcoming: Of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, of LGBTQ persons, and of others who have long felt excluded by the church.
With too few diocesan priests, including in Charlotte, where the Catholic population is booming, McSweeney said he'd also support the church re-opening the door to married priests by making celibacy optional — as it was the first 1,000 years of Roman Catholicism.
The monsignor — a title for priests who have rendered valuable service to the church — said he's been around many married Protestant ministers who are "doing great work."
"And many men I was in the (Catholic) seminary with would be great priests today except for one thing," he added, that one thing being their desire to get married.
McSweeney said he's also "very concerned" that many of the priests graduating from seminaries these days are too conservative and could spur a revolt by Catholics in the pews against the priests' efforts to stifle the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Also known as Vatican II, this council in the 1960s embraced church reform, including expanding the role for lay Catholics and celebrating the Mass in the local language more so than in Latin.
"The population that is the worshiping Catholic community have no understanding or history of pre-Vatican II," he said. "They weren't born (yet). The same with these young priests."
McSweeney said Vatican II called for active lay participation in the liturgy, or Mass. "What I see happening (at some parishes) is that is not happening," he said. "It's being stopped."
Lay people, particularly women, are not being permitted, for example, to dispense Communion as Eucharistic ministers. Altar boys are allowed, but not altar girls.
These young priests, McSweeney said, "are trying to reform the reform. ... I don't endorse what they're doing to God's people."
Recently, at a Catholic church in Waynesville, which is part of the Charlotte diocese, the pastor resigned after many from the congregation left to protest his insistence, for example, of replacing popular hymns with the ancient Gregorian chant.
McSweeney said such rebellion could also happen in some Charlotte parishes, adding only half jokingly, "I'll lead it."
Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the Charlotte diocese, is a conservative who seems less in sync with Pope Francis than with former Pope John Paul II, who named him bishop in 2003. Last month, Jugis ordained five new priests for the diocese, four of whom he had sent to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, a school with a reputation for graduating priests with traditionalist views.
McSweeney, whose many jobs over the years included being chancellor, or CEO, of the diocese, said he'd like to see Charlotte area churches get priests from a broader pool of seminaries, the way they used to.
"In our history, we would have men in training in different seminaries so we'd get a broader aspect of the church," he said. "And I think that's what should be done now. Not just one place."
‘Stay out of the way’
To take over as pastor of St. Matthew, McSweeney convinced Jugis to appoint the Rev. Pat Hoare, who has most recently been pastor at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Charlotte.
"I had suggested very clearly to Bishop Jugis that (Hoare) might be my successor because of his sense of care of people and also because of his professional business background," said McSweeney, who called Hoare a moderate.
Having a business background — Hoare has a master's degree in business administration and was a commercial insurance underwriter at Liberty Mutual — can come in handy in running a megachurch. Before he became a priest, McSweeney worked in his family's funeral and real estate businesses in Oneida, N.Y.
Also key in promoting Hoare: His previous ties to St. Matthew. He was a member and a deacon at the church, and was ordained there in 2007.
McSweeney's advice to his successor: "Stay out of the way a little bit and let God's people do what they're called to do. I've been quoted and I mean it, that the star here is not a priest." It's Jesus, he said, and the church is like a jigsaw puzzle, with each person fitting in in some capacity.
McSweeney also points to the front of St. Matthew's weekly bulletin, which calls the church "a welcoming parish" no matter what your status is with the Catholic Church or your current marital situation or your sexual orientation — to name just a few of the examples listed.
Questions on inclusion
Some may question McSweeney's record on inclusion. In 2013, for example, St. Matthew bowed out of hosting Mecklenburg Ministries' annual interfaith Thanksgiving service rather than formally invite music director Steav Bates-Congdon to help organize the event. Bates-Congdon had been fired the year before by another Catholic church after he traveled to New York to marry his longtime male partner and then put the wedding photos on Facebook.
McSweeney, who participates in celebrating an annual Mass for gay and lesbian Catholics in the the diocese, said his issue with Mecklenburg Ministries was "you don't tell me who to invite." Also, at the time, Bishop Jugis had just championed a 2012 campaign to amend the N.C. Constitution to reaffirm the state's ban on same-sex marriage. (That ban was later thrown out by federal courts.)
McSweeney also said he "won't go there" in taking a stand on whether women should be ordained priests in the Catholic Church. Recent popes, including Francis, have said it will never happen, even though several large mainline Protestant denominations have been ordaining women clergy for years.
But McSweeney does favor letting women become deacons, which would give them the authority to preach at Mass, baptize and perform weddings.
And the monsignor said about 95 percent of his 63 staffers at St. Matthew are women, including the church's chief financial officer, its chief of facilities and most of its clinical counselors.
‘Never say no to Jesus’
This weekend, 1,400 volunteers at St. Matthew will do what they've done every year for 15 years: Pack 335,000 meals bound for local food banks and for Haiti and Jamaica – the two countries McSweeney is considering as his next home.
He plans to work with the Missionaries of the Poor, a Catholic group at work on the ground in both countries.
McSweeney feels called.
"I've had the privilege of being in many different roles in ministry. ... But I think I need now to experience (poverty)," McSweeney said. "I have a little motto: 'You never say no to Jesus.' And he keeps talking to me."
Story by Tim Funk / The Charlotte Observer