Monsignor John McSweeney has been a priest in the Diocese of Charlotte since its beginnings. “You’re looking at an antique,” he says, laughing. He’s the third pastor of St. Matthew, today the largest congregation in Charlotte and one of the largest Catholic parishes in the United States.
McSweeney, 72, grew up in Oneida, N.Y. In the 1960s, he worked in funeral service and real estate and attended Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
He arrived in North Carolina in the early 1970s. The Rev. Michael Begley, founding bishop of the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, ordained McSweeney in 1974. Over the years, McSweeney served as the administrator, vicar-general and chancellor of the diocese. He has also been pastor of 12 churches in the diocese, and served a year in the U.S. Virgin Islands as pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Thomas.
He has been pastor at St. Matthew since 1999. “I’ve watched Charlotte grow up,” he says. “I like the healthy dynamics of the arts … the different diversities of neighborhoods that are starting.”
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St. Matthew has a staff of 69 people, 90 percent of whom are women, McSweeney says. “In this place we’ve got loads of talent.” The church has 107 active ministries. St. Matthew offers a counseling service with clinical counselors; faith formation classes for adults and children; and international and local outreach programs. This year, they collected and shipped 1.4 million pounds of food to Haiti, Jamaica and local areas for World Hunger Month, which they observe each July.
McSweeney says 300 to 400 people attend daily Mass. Others gather each day to pray the liturgy of the hours and pray for peace. “The purpose is to give honor and glory to almighty God in many different ways. Our focus (is) on our worship; from the worship, our hands extend outward. I have no trouble telling people we’ve got to be the feet and hands of the Lord.”
Q. When did you know you wanted to be in the clergy?
A. I was 29 years old. I had this feeling that I wanted to do something different with my life. And so, being raised Catholic, I said, “I guess I’ll be a Catholic priest,” not knowing what that meant. And then I went to the seminary. I was a product of the ’60s. There were a lot of changes going on in society and within myself. I wanted to make a difference for people.
Q. What person(s) shaped your religious philosophy the most?
A. (Catholic theologians) Karl Rahner and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and their writings. And (Pope) John XXIII.
Q. When it comes to ministry, what is your passion?
A. My hobby is jigsaw puzzles. And I know with a puzzle, every piece is important to make the beautiful picture, eventually. My passion is seeing people achieve the strengths they have. I don’t dwell on negatives. I dwell on the positive characteristics of people and encourage them.
Q. What homily would you give if you could change the world?
A. I would be emphasizing the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” My homilies also always deal with mercy and justice.
Q. Your favorite passage from a sacred book?
A. “Be an ambassador for the Lord.” It’s from Paul’s writings. I like that term, ambassador, meaning you’ve got to know your subject well.
Q. Your favorite quote?
A. “Don’t react to the emotions of the moment.” (His own quote.) And: “See everything, improve a little, and overlook a great deal.” That’s my philosophy. It comes from John XXIII. I’ve used that motto for years.
Q. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
A. “Thank you for trying.” That’s what I want on my tombstone: “He tried.” I don’t want any more than that. None of that flowery stuff, no harps, nothing like that. I hope (they have more than) harps up there, because I like country-western music. No offense to the harpists!