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, 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.”