Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

A long time ago -- the early 1980s -- I wrote a front-page feature for The Charlotte Observer about life in the tiny Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. The news hook was an interview with the first bishop of what was, at that time, America's smallest diocese.

Things have changed in the Queen City, when it comes to Catholic life. In fact, if you follow news about American Catholicism you know that one of the most important stories is the explosion of Catholic statistics in the Bible Belt, including the Deep South and the Southeast. The rising Catholic tide in the Southwest is, to a large degree, linked with issues of immigration. That's a factor in the South, but the growth is also linked to large numbers of converts and transplants from the North.

Just the other day, Crux ran little story -- "In the U.S. South, the Church is in ‘growth mode’ " -- focusing on a meeting of bishops from the South. It noted:

“We are all in a growth mode. That’s a good thing,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta told the Diocese of Charleston’s newspaper The Catholic Miscellany.
“We are spending part of our time here talking about the need to establish new parishes, expand pastoral outreach, and respond to growing numbers both from immigration and those moving here from other parts of the country,” the archbishop continued. “We all are sharing in this growth.”

So, the Observer recently had a perfect opportunity to dig into some of these complex and important subjects.

The hook for this long story was the retirement of Msgr. John McSweeney, the senior priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church -- America's largest Catholic parish. To add to the symbolism, the lede notes that this New Yorker was the first priest ordained in the Charlotte diocese.

This is where things get interesting. This long, long piece is based on an interview with the outspoken McSweeney and, well, that is that. The bottom line: He is highly critical of many things that would be affirmed by traditional or even middle-of-the-road Catholics in the Bible Belt. As the Observer puts it, he believes the Catholic Church often puts the "Book of Law before the Book of Love."

Who gets to respond to his views on a litany of hot-button topics? Who represents the other side of these important points of doctrine and tradition? Also, who gets to explain that McSweeney may -- or may not, the story is not clear -- steer left on all church issues?

If you guessed "no one," you would be right. This "news" piece is actually a long, long sermon, with no one allowed to debate a priest who is calling for more debate and diversity.

Point one in this sermon is a call for optional celibacy and a married priesthood. Now, I know from experience that -- here in the heavily Protestant South -- that's a topic on which one can find a wide variety of views in pews, and not just on the Catholic left. However, for McSweeney, this issue is linked to his views on a variety of issues, from divorce to gay rights.

But here is the passage -- under a sub-headline that warns "Revolt brewing?" -- that gets really interesting. This story urgently needed some kind of response from the very men who are the focus of this monsignor's barbs.

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.”

Now, anyone who knows anything about debates in modern Catholicism knows that "reform the reform" is a phrase linked to the convictions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI (now retired, and largely silent).

In the view of this pope, the problem is not the contents of key Vatican II texts, but actions taken by those who want to follow the "spirit of Vatican II" (or even "Spirit," with an uppercase "S") into more radical changes in church doctrine, tradition and law. An important advocate of this approach who has made lots of recent news would be Cardinal Robert Sarah, leader of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship.

In other words, this is a hot topic in the modern church, one in which the views of Catholics on left and right deserve careful, accurate and fair treatment. That is precisely what does not happen here.

Meanwhile, it's clear this monsignor has been a key player in other important debates at the local level. Take, for example, this rather complex passage:

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.

The phrase "some may question" is, of course, vague reference to a cloud of witnesses that the Observer team elected not to interview on any of these subjects. Once again, the solo sermon stands alone.

There's more to discuss, but you get the point.

I found it interesting that the Jesuit publication America, in a feature about St. Matthews, dug into the fact that leaders in this Catholic megachurch had gone out of their way to explore trends in Protestant megachurches that face similar issues linked to rapid growth and strained ties that bind. Consider this passage:

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), less than a quarter of all Catholic churches built since 2001 seat 1,000 people or more, while St. Matthew has room for 2,000. There just are not that many megaparishes to learn from.
That is why Michael Burck, who manages adult faith formation, and some other St. Matthew staff members took a trip to Saddleback, Rick Warren’s evangelical megachurch with more than a dozen sites in California, to see what lessons a Catholic parish could draw from a church that differed in theology but was more similar in size. Mr. Burck was struck by the way evangelical churches are empty during the week and wondered where all their parishioners are going. The parishioners at Saddleback gather on Sunday to have the Scriptures read and interpreted, but for the rest of the week they pray together outside the church in small groups.
Those small groups take Sunday services as a point of departure, an approach Mr. Burck views with a kind of holy envy.

Now there is an interesting and newsworthy topic to discuss with the parish's leader, as he heads out the door into retirement.

Alas, maybe that was not controversial enough? After all, why devote ink in this long report to the remarkable parish that this man helped build? Why seek out other voices?

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