When Nathalie Piraino first wandered into a service at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore, she was carrying the kind of burden few human beings are ever called upon to handle.
A native of Rwanda, she had learned months earlier that dozens of her family members, including her mother and siblings, had been slaughtered in the genocide then consuming the small African country.
As the Mass began, the Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr. did what he always does: asked whether any newcomers were present, walked his microphone down from the altar, and asked them to tell their stories.
Piraino did, and when she was finished, the congregation erupted in applause.
“Everyone came over, hugged me and said, ‘Welcome, welcome,’” she recalls, fighting back tears. “I felt, ‘Whoa, this is America?’ It was beautiful. We’ve been with Father Joe and St. Matthew ever since.”
Now Piraino is one of the hundreds going through another kind of grief. Muth is retiring this month. He has spent the last three decades as pastor of St. Matthew, a church of 300 families he has transformed into one of the most culturally diverse — and vibrant — in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
When Muth, who will turn 73 this month, says his final Sunday Mass at St. Matthew on June 27, he’ll also be ending his time at Blessed Sacrament, the smaller church he has led as well since 2012. He has been a priest in the archdiocese for 47 years.
“Father Joe is a soul who can take you from deep sorrow to great joy,” says Piraino, who returned with him to her devastated village in 2004. “Not many people have that gift. We don’t know what we’re going to do without him.”
If the Baltimore-born Muth has a single hallmark, parishioners say, it’s the spirit of welcome he projects toward others, whether they’re refugees from a war-torn land, or members of groups to which the church has not always shown wholehearted acceptance, or other rank-and-file Baltimoreans with a problem at 3 a.m.
As he sat in a pew at St. Matthew one day this month, reflecting on his legacy, banners of welcome for LGBTQ guests, immigrants and members of other religions hung from the balcony behind him. The flags of 45 nations festooned the walls, each reflecting a parishioner’s homeland.
A sign reading “kwibuka” — “remember and renew” in the Rwandan national language — hung beside the altar in memory of the 1994 massacres. A Black Lives Matter banner hangs outside.
If Muth’s stances have, at times, pushed the envelope of doctrine and tradition, he says they’ve at least been driven by a unifying principle.
“This may sound simplistic, but it’s the way I read the Gospel,” he said. “Jesus went after all kinds of people, people that were broken and hurt and sad and lost and grieving. I think the church has to do the same. The church is for all of us who are, let’s face it, messed up in our own ways. It should say, ‘Come in, we’ll figure it out together. All are welcome.’”
Joe Muth grew up in the 1950s in Govans, a working-class Baltimore neighborhood. An altar boy at St. Mary’s of the Assumption, and the son of devout liberal Catholics, he decided early on to study for the priesthood, enrolling at St. Paul Latin High School, a day seminary, in the eighth grade.
As Muth grew to adulthood, he says he found inspiration in the Catholic priests and sisters he saw taking the lead in civil rights demonstrations, marches against the Vietnam War and actions in support of farmworkers — all, in his view, manifestations of gospel truth and the church’s teachings on social justice.
“I began to think, ‘That’s where I want to be — in the middle of those changes, helping people to grapple with the questions and trying to understand them myself,’” he told a reporter for the Catholic Review.
It was in his early postings in the Baltimore archdiocese — St. Agnes in Catonsville, St. Jerome in Pigtown, St. Ann’s in East Baltimore — that Muth, who was ordained in 1974, began learning the necessity of reaching out to those outside his own cultural background.
In his Masses he employs call-and-response speaking patterns, building, at times, to the kind of climax not often heard in mainstream Catholic churches. He learned the techniques while taking seminary courses on and practicing the traditions of African American preaching.
One longtime parishioner says that alone helped convince him to join St. Matthew.
“As I came to the church that first time, Father Joe was preaching,” says Peter Njau, a finance manager who immigrated from Kenya in the 1990s. “He had this very captivating voice. He delivers his messages on current affairs and daily living with an amazing kind of power. I was hooked and have been there from then on.”
When he took over at St. Matthew in 1990, Muth says, he inherited a parish that had long reflected the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood — overwhelmingly white from its founding in 1949 through the late 1960s, a mix of Black and white members for the next two decades.
But knowing the area was becoming home to refugees from Africa and other continents, he decided it was time to extend another form of welcome.
Muth founded the Immigrant Outreach Services Center, an organization established to offer immigrants free legal services, in 2001.
One of the few such outfits based at a church parish, the center, now an independent nonprofit, has expanded to provide medical services, English classes, job training, tutoring for children and more, all regardless of immigration status.
The center has served individuals from more than 120 countries, many of whom have become parish members.
The Catholic church, including the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, has taken up the cause of immigrants, arguing that immigration policy cannot be separated from concerns about the “dignity of the human person.”
Church policy on LGBTQ affairs is more ambiguous, asserting that while “homosexual orientation” is not in itself sinful, “homosexual tendencies” are “disordered” and homosexual acts are “intrinsically immoral.”
Muth has never been shy about rejecting that view. A decade ago, he founded “LGBTQ Educating and Affirming Diversity,” or LEAD, a ministry in which families and individuals dealing with questions of sexual orientation meet for prayer, conversation and mutual support within the context of church teachings and traditions.
The pastor believes that people don’t choose to be gay, lesbian or transgender, but rather realize they’re oriented that way and understand they must face the possibility of considerable cultural rejection, often in the very places they should be finding comfort.
“When young people discover they’re gay or lesbian, it’s actually a heartache,” he says. “Sometimes they can be on the edge of suicide. In our parish we want these folks to experience a welcoming, loving community of people who can help them discover their beauty and their joy in life.”
One local mother, a lifelong Catholic who gave her name only as Jennifer, says that’s just how it works.
After learning last year that her middle-school aged daughter is transgender, she says she spent months in “a place of crisis,” wondering how she could “continue down this path when the church I’ve always loved is not going to affirm and value who my child is.”
After a friend told her about Muth, she met him at St. Matthew and listened as he described LEAD. She says she burst into tears.
“I did not know that was possible, that there were places in the Baltimore Catholic community working to be vocally welcoming to LGBTQ people,” she says.
Muth says he’s grateful the archdiocese has never prohibited his endeavors; Archbishop William E. Lori and Bishop Denis J. Madden have attended LEAD sessions.
But Muth has taken the unusual step of announcing from the pulpit that he was asked to retire earlier than he’d have liked. Many parishioners wonder whether his left-leaning stances played a role. Archdiocese officials say firmly that’s not the case.
Dressed in green vestments to evoke the hope of a new day, Muth strode to the St. Matthew altar, his white beard gleaming, and addressed a congregation of about a hundred socially distanced people.
“You are the people of God. Praise the Lord! We are grateful to be in the house of the Lord one more time,” he cried on that Sunday this month. The “Amens” echoed.
The priest recognized the 49 people massacred in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando five years to the day earlier, named and prayed for 16 people recently killed in Baltimore and called on God to “reverse the violence in our world.”
He read from an Old Testament passage in which God says he takes the topmost branches from tall trees and plants them as new shrubberies — “God is amazing, isn’t he, to be able to do all that?” — and mentioned how figures such as Martin Luther King, John Lewis and George Floyd had all been involved in “preparing the ground” for a world in which all can have voices and voting power.
“God has prepared new beginnings,” he said.
Muth was alluding in part to next month and beyond, when the Rev. Matt Buening, the 44-year-old chaplain of Towson University, replaces him at St. Matthew and Blessed Sacrament. And Muth will prepare to start a new life as part-time campus chaplain at Notre Dame University of Maryland in the fall.
He says he’s already looking forward to connecting Notre Dame undergraduates with the tutoring program at the St. Matthew immigration center. “I’ll still be around,” he says.
At the end of Mass, he stood outside and greeted parishioners one on one, as he always does. The line was long.
Charlene Curreri, 45, of Catonsville, who has known Muth since childhood, threw her arms around him, cried on his shoulder for a while, and made sure she punched in his cell number.
On the way to her car, she tried to explain why the moment was so emotional.
“Did you see those people in there?” she said. “It’s a group that has Black and white, gay and straight, young and old, Republican and Democrat, all worshipping together. It’s exactly what a church should look like. It’s heartbreaking to lose that man.”