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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

As a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte, I always look on with interest whenever a brother priest gets his name in the paper. This interest, unfortunately, sometimes turns to trepidation whenever the story of a brother priest has been told in a way that hardly befits himself or his fellows in ministry. It was precisely this sort of trepidation I felt after reading the interview with Monsignor John McSweeney written by Tim Funk in the July 9 Charlotte Observer.

Monsignor McSweeney recently retired after serving ably in a variety of high-profile capacities in his long ministry, and so tributes to him would naturally be appropriate. Such tributes have come in many forms. In its June 23 edition the Catholic News Herald published a fitting homage to the man and his work, and particularly his commitment to “servant leadership” in the diocese, which he has said is his own motto for how he approaches priesthood. He will again be saluted in August at a Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral honoring those who celebrate significant anniversaries of ordination.

He deserves the praise he receives, having served so long and having presided at the helm of what has become the largest parish in the United States. Indeed, St. Matthew’s boasts a congregation larger than some whole dioceses. This is a monumental task, one that he has carried out with great efficiency and in a manner that might well serve as a model for other priests with pastoral care of other similarly massive and growing congregations.

So I experienced some sadness at seeing the way in which the Observer chose to salute Monsignor McSweeney. It is apparent from the start that the reporter did not write this article so much to salute the man and his work as to push a controversial agenda. Indeed, the article’s headline was not “A Tribute to Monsignor John McSweeney” – one would have to look in the pages of this diocesan newspaper to find a piece so entitled. Rather, the piece was headlined: “Let Married Men Become Priests, says Pastor of America’s Largest Catholic Church.”

Here the reporter reminds us, and repeats throughout the article, that St. Matthew is America’s largest parish and thus presumably carries some kind of unique authority. It is probably worth pointing out that, apart from the weakness of arguments from authority, St. Matthew’s has become such a large parish because it is the only Catholic church in a very rapidly growing part of the very rapidly growing Charlotte region.

More importantly, the Observer’s headline fails one of the basic rules of headline writing, in that it isn’t truly what the story is about. For one, it is an article marking the occasion of the retirement of a long-serving pastor, and for another, many other issues are covered than simply the ordination of married men. While I did not attend journalism school, I do know that a headline is supposed to succinctly explain what follows, and also to draw the reader in. While the latter purpose is certainly accomplished, the former is almost certainly not.

What follows then is a piece that simply uses the occasion of Monsignor McSweeney’s retirement to attack certain trends in the Church at large and in particular in the Diocese of Charlotte. Here a point-by-point rebuttal is not necessary, nor is an apologetic for each of the points which the reporter labors so mightily to attack. Rather, I feel that there is one important thing that needs to be said.

I take it personally when my brother priests show up in the paper, and I take it even more personally when their lives and their legacies are used to attack other brother priests, and to stack the deck against the way in which we might go about doing our work for the people of God. I myself am a recent graduate of the Pontifical College Josephinum, which the reporter points out is a place that is inculcating “conservative ideals” in its graduates. I am not entirely sure which conservative ideals I am supposed to have picked up there. All I really learned in seminary that sticks with me is that I need to pray always, work hard every day, and spend myself serving the people of God. To live in this way is the only thing that fulfills me. If these are “conservative ideals,” then would that all priests were conservatives!

There is a certain irony in that in the midst of his criticisms, the reporter speaks of how Monsignor McSweeney is concerned that the Church today puts “the Book of Law before the Book of Love.” In what part of the “book of love” is found that the ap-propriate way to engage one’s opponents is to label them according to ideological divisions? In what part of the “book of love” do we hear that love consists of pigeonholing people of a different generation because of the name printed on their diplomas? In what part of the “book of love” does one find the imperative to “lead the revolt”?

What I read in the Observer is not a fitting tribute to a long-serving pastor so much as it is a diatribe against practices and teachings of the Church that the reporter himself must struggle with. It is sad to see that he uses his position as a journalist not to tell stories so much as to mount a bully pulpit, not to engage in the exchange of ideas and legitimate dialogue so much as to attack and belittle. To use the occasion of Monsignor McSweeney’s retirement to take aim at other clergy or the Church is beyond offensive. It is divisive and counterproductive to anything that anyone of any generation or ideological leaning might be trying to do to serve the people of God.

Is this really the way Monsignor McSweeney’s life and career should be remembered?

Father Cory Catron is parochial vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Monroe.