For Monsignor Luke Sweeney, quarantining inside the rectory at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church with limited personal interactions became a time of great self-reflection as he slowly unpacked his things and entered a new routine of prayer.
He had just completed a five-year term at the Holy See in Rome preparing for his next challenge, though he didn’t know exactly what that would be. Then in July, he got a call that shocked him. He was to return to his native Westchester and become the pastor of IHM.
Sweeney, 45, had never been a pastor before. Since he was ordained in 2001, he’d served in multiple administrative roles throughout the church in the New York Archdiocese and Rome, but he never had a flock of his own to guide. He enjoyed staying connected with parishioners he had met during his holy pursuit, encouraging them in discernment or assisting with Mass in Queens and Melville, New York. But now he will be able to serve in the role most priests hope for.
“I see the role of the pastor being a two-way road. Jesus places pastors in parishes … to draw the people closer to Himself,” he said. “But also, Jesus gives the parish to the priest … to deepen our love and knowledge of the Lord.”
Having just arrived from Rome, he awaits the end of his two-week quarantine and is starting his pastorship socially distanced. Through Flocknote, phone calls and from the safety of his window above the church parking lot, he is connecting with his parish community and beginning his new journey in Scarsdale.
Sweeney grew up just 20 minutes from IHM in Irvington where he attended the parish school at Immaculate Conception. He followed the same path as his older brother and uncles to attend Fordham Preparatory School where he found the program both challenging and rewarding. He appreciated the Jesuit’s approach to the “full person” and found himself drawn to the priesthood in elementary school (though he also considered becoming an astronaut or a doctor).
In high school he started to take a more reflective view. He took long walks along the Hudson River to contemplate his future.
“What would bring me greater joy?” he would think to himself. “What would bring me that greater sense of fulfillment?”
After many self-reflective walks, it was clear — he was to become a priest.
During his senior year of high school while on a retreat he decided to act on his realization. He couldn’t pray or mull his decision over anymore; rather, he needed to just do it.
His father drove him to St. John Neumann Seminary in Riverdale and that’s where it really clicked; that’s where he felt he needed to be.
Sweeney said his parents were supportive of his decision. His mother had always encouraged him to attend daily Mass and there was an openness he had with her about prayer and the Holy Spirit.
“As a way of kind of taking away all pressure [my dad] said, ‘No matter what you become in life, know that your mom and I will love you’ and what a blessing that was,” said Sweeney. “I was blessed with parents that supported [my decision], but it came as a cost for them.”
While attending seminary and studying history and philosophy at Fordham University, Sweeney was asked to continue his seminary formation at Pontifical North American College in Rome. Because his brother had already moved to another state, Sweeney’s acceptance to the school meant that his parents would be alone in New York.
“We know that it’s not easy for a number of parents when their children leave the nest,” he said. “Their support came as a sacrifice to them but, through it all, they always were encouraging … and I’m grateful for that heroism that they showed.”
He continued his theology studies at Jesuit Gregorian University and then Pontifical John Paul II Institute, where he studied marriage and family. He returned to New York and was ordained at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan in 2001.
He then served throughout New York as a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart parish in Newburgh, a faculty member at St. John Neumann College and Pre-Theology House of Formation at Dunwoodie, a vocation director of the Archdiocese of New York and a vice rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary in Douglaston, Queens.
In 2015, while on the Belt Parkway heading to the Verrazzano Bridge, Sweeney got word that he would need to pack his bags and jump on a plane, as he was chosen to serve as an official for the Congregation for Bishops in the Holy See in Rome.
“It came as a complete shock and surprise,” he said. “But an incredible blessing.”
The Holy See offered Sweeney a new perspective on the priesthood. From secretarial work, to summarization and analysis, he was servicing those with whom the Pope collaborated to make decisions.
“It’s pastoral ministry from the altitude of a plane,” he said. “You’re looking at things in the big picture.”
What deeply moved him, though, was the fraternity of U.S. priests also serving in the Holy See. The U.S. bishop had a residence for American priests serving there and Sweeney found the environment supportive and encouraging. In many ways the residence was also a sort of reunion site, where he was able to meet up with old friends and classmates.
In 2017, Sweeney became the adjunct spiritual director for some of the seminarians at the North American College in Rome and even gave tours underneath St. Peter’s basilica in the tomb of St. Peter.
He also performed Mass every Sunday for English-speaking pilgrims right before Pope Francis’ noon blessing. Although he improved his Italian greatly while living in Rome, he was never able to gain fluency.
Due to his work in the Holy See, he and several other priests were honored and recognized with monsignorship by the cardinal-prefect, an honor usually bestowed only upon priests older than 65.
When his five-year term in Rome was coming to a close, Sweeney contacted the New York Archdiocese after Easter and knew a number of parishes were going to be in need of pastors. Then in July he got a call from Bishop Edmund Whalen about IHM and, before long, Sweeney was navigating vacant terminals at the international airport in Rome on his way to Westchester.
Coming back to his home county has been a sort of homecoming for Sweeney. Though much of his family has now moved or passed away, he is embracing the change.
Sweeney is also trying to use Flocknote, a communication service for reaching out to parishioners, for the first time. When assigned to IHM, he followed Father Thomas Lynch’s popular daily Flocknote thoughts and saw the platform’s communication possibilities. He said he plans to use it at least once a week to keep parishioners up to date on announcements and to connect with them on a more personal level.
Excited for his pastorship, Sweeney said he is also excited to be involved in the parish’s school. Growing up in a parish school himself, he said he plans to collaborate with Tracy Keelin, the school’s principal, and meet the entire staff once he’s out of quarantine. He is also looking forward to tackling the challenges surrounding the church’s religious education program, which is being run online due to the pandemic.
“I’m going to look for ways to … connect with our elementary program and I’m very excited to meet our high school program as well,” he said.
Until then though, Sweeney is still unpacking and getting the lay of the land. One day while unpacking, Sweeney came across an old newspaper clipping his father cut out for him. The clipping was about one of Sweeney’s childhood friends who became a Scarsdale police officer. His friend just recently retired from the police force and it gave Sweeney a moment to think about God’s providence.
“[God] kind of stitches things together in our lives,” he said. “In a mysterious way. In a beautiful way.”