Re­tir­ing af­ter 43 years, pro­gres­sive cleric to min­is­ter to poor

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - TIM FUNK

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — He started his Char­lotte ca­reer in 1974 as the first priest or­dained in the brand new Catholic dio­cese here. He ended 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 said.

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 of in­te­grat­ing 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 gave his farewell homily, or ser­mon, at St. Matthew — with 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 has served for more than 40 years. (St. Matthew is the 12th par­ish he has 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 LGBT peo­ple, 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 re­open­ing 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 has 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 Mass in the lo­cal lan­guage more so than in Latin.

“The pop­u­la­tion that is the wor­ship­ping 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, part of the same 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 chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, 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.”

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