Inside Charlotte's St. Matthew, the largest Catholic Parish in the U.S.

Inside the largest Catholic parish
Published: Sep. 22, 2015 at 6:38 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2015 at 9:11 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's hard to say what 73 years-old should look like, but it is safe to say, we should all be blessed to wear it as well as Monsignor John J. McSweeney.

He's playful with his church staff, quick-witted with visitors and always on the move. All of it necessary when you lead a parish like St. Matthew, a massive Catholic church that sits just outside the 485 loop in south Charlotte's Ballantyne community.

"I guess some people would call it (a mega church)," said McSweeney.

What you can call it, is the largest Catholic Parish in the United States. 34,000 people call St. Matthew home.

"I say here, everyone is welcome and I really to do mean that when I say that," said McSweeney. "Now, because you're welcome that doesn't necessarily mean we'll agree with all of your opinions, but we can certainly talk about it."

Msgr. McSweeney has lead the flock, of what he jokingly calls his 'little country parish' since 1999. 25 years earlier, in 1974, he had become the first priest ordained by the Charlotte Diocese.

"I was the first one," said McSweeney. "The Founding Bishop didn't know what he was doing and neither did I."

McSweeney came later than many to the priesthood. He was almost 30, and as he puts it, very much a product of the 1960s. He gave up a career in funeral businesses and real estate to answer the call.

"It wasn't a telephone call, it wasn't lightning," said McSweeney. "I just knew I had to do some thing different."

He knew that would take him away from his home in upstate New York. He said it was best to get a clean break from what his life had been. It landed him in Charlotte and in the 42 years since, he's had many different jobs within Charlotte Diocese.

No matter the job, one thing he's always been is relatable, whether it's blessing motorcycles and their riders, like he does every year, or playfully throwing questions at the church's youngest children.  It's those personal connections that are part of the reason St. Matthew continues to grow at a rate of 7% a year.

"I get very uptight when people start saying this is the only way it can be, that is not the Catholic Church," said McSweeney. "The Catholic Church is universal. It's unity is by its diversity."

He worries about the divisions within the church, debates over what is Catholic and what isn't, who is more orthodox than others.

"I think it is narrowing of the message of Jesus Christ which is a message of truth and that message welcomes all people," said McSweeney.  "I think we have to learn to dialogue we have to be in conversation. I think the worst thing people can do is not talk."

It's not to say there is compromise going on in church doctrine. McSweeney says there isn't. Members will tell you St. Matthew thrives because it spends less time talking about what people shouldn't do and more about what they should.

In the Vatican II tradition, McSweeney says St. Matthew's focus is finding the unique talent of each person and putting it to use for good, to serve others. The church has more than a hundred active ministries, many of them serving, clothing and feeding the poor.

"I always call it the smells and bells and that isn't going to really attract anybody," said McSweeney. "But to be able to hold somebody's hand that is hurting, listen to somebody that is hurting, or feed somebody, that I think, is a lot more important than the smells and bells."

Sound familiar? It's been the focus of Pope Francis. Msgr. McSweeney said he is anxiously awaiting to hear his message for America.

"I'm full of anticipation, excitement," said McSweeney. "I would just say I'm hoping, praying, waiting to see how he might stir the pot a little bit."

He says Pope Francis has already had an impact on the church here in the United States. He is connecting mostly because of his gentle style.

"I think he's not afraid to smile. I think he's not afraid to hug. I think he's not afraid to listen and I also think he is very perceptive to what he is hearing," said McSweeney.

The same could be said for the leader of the 'little country parish', who after 42 years on the job is still going strong.

"I could (retire)," said McSweeney. "I like what I'm doing and if the Pope can keep going at 78 (years old) I'll try it for a few more days."

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