Lesbian denied communion at mother’s funeral dismays gay Catholics

Lesbian denied communion at mother's funeral
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Lesbian denied communion at mother's funeralBy: Chuck Colbert / TRT Reporter–

The denial of communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral has touched a raw nerve among LGBT Catholics, prompting a variety of responses and concerns.

But first, the facts of the incident are perhaps best described in the words of the woman, Barbara Johnson, 51, who explained to local metropolitan media in Washington, D. C., what the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo said to her, “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.”

His denial stunned Johnson, a lifelong Catholic and former Catholic schoolteacher, who lives with a partner of 20 years.

“I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying. My mother’s body was behind me, and all I wanted to do was provide for her, and the final thing was to make a beautiful funeral, and here I was letting her down because there was a scene,” she told the Washington Post.

The setting, for what Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, called a “grievous error of one priest,” was a funeral Mass on Saturday, Feb. 25, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md.

Not only did Guarnizo put his hand over the communion platter, but also he walked away during Johnson’s eulogy. And he refused to go to the cemetery with the family for her mother’s burial.

“For Barbara Johnson, this is an utterly unbelievable and painful experience,” said DeBernardo of New Ways, a gay-positive ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice for LGBT Catholics, based in Mt. Rainier, Md.

“The fact that it has resonated so strongly within the Catholic community shows that people are very concerned. Gay Catholics are upset,” he added.

“What it tells me is there has to be a lot better pastoral training of priests, particularly on gay and lesbian issues,” said DeBernardo.

Lesbian feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., offered her assessment. “The Eucharist is a sacrament, not a political football,” she said.

“This terrible abuse of one family at a time of great pastoral need is but a snapshot of anti-LGBTQ theology in action. It is outdated, outmoded, and outrageous,” said Hunt, co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, or WATER.

Based in Silver Spring, Md., WATER is a feminist educational center and social justice network.

The incident in Maryland resonated locally.

“It is hard to imagine a more heart-wrenching failure on the part of our church,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Medford, Mass.-based Dignity USA, an advocacy organization.

“The reality is that this could happen to almost anyone of us, given escalating conflicts between pastoral care and the demand for adherence” to “a handful of socially conservative aspects of doctrine,” she said.

“Whether we Catholics use birth control, have remarried after a divorce, believe women are qualified for official ministry, or support LGBT equality, most of us hold several views that contradict official Roman Catholic teaching.  Could any of us be the next Barbara Jordan?” asked Duddy-Burke.

“Communion was never intended to be a political litmus test of judgment, but rather a reflection of the relationship the individual has with God. The pain that Barbara Johnson and her partner of 20 years experienced in being denied communion was not theirs alone, but for every gay person who has experienced the personal rejection by the church,” said Charles Martel, a Boston psychotherapist in private practice, who is co-founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, an advocacy organization.

“The bishop sets the tone of what happens in a diocese, and so the refusal of communion to Barbara Johnson because she was attending the funeral of her mother with her partner of 20 years, provides the opportunity for Cardinal [Donald] Weurl to examine why this happened in his archdiocese. It’s a ‘teachable moment’ but will it become that or not?” Martel said.

For its part, the Washington archdiocese acknowledged in a statement, that Guarnizo had acted inappropriately, saying, “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”

The Washington archdiocesan policy of not withholding communion and for priests to counsel Catholics privately is similar to the approach in the Boston archdiocese under leadership of Cardinal Sean O’Malley and his predecessor Cardinal Bernard Law.

Johnson also received an apology through correspondence from an auxiliary bishop.

“I am sorry that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life, in light of her faith in Jesus Christ, was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity,” Bishop Barry Knestout wrote.

Johnson told local media that she was satisfied with the archdiocesan apology, adding, although the damage done to her family and mother’s memory cannot be repaired.

Still, she does not want Catholics to walk away from a faith her mother dearly loved. “So many people have said to me that now they will never go back. That would break my mother’s heart,” Johnson told the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).

However, the Johnson family wants disciplinary action taken against Guarnizo. In a letter to him, she wrote, “You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the Day of Judgment for judging me. I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”

The Johnson family’s mission is “not to divide the church,” Barbara told NCR. “Our mission is to receive an apology from Fr. Marcel.”



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11 Comments on "Lesbian denied communion at mother’s funeral dismays gay Catholics"

  1. Chauffeur | March 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm |

    It’s regrettable that many people (including Catholics) do not understand that the sacred sacrament of Eucharist requires the receiver to be in the state of grace – which means that a recent confession is necessary.
    Here’s a more balanced article on this issue:

    • Many Catholics are not always in a state of grace when they receive Eucharist. Some are committing adultery, others abusing their children, heck some are even pedophiles, which has to do with this Catholic topic, as you well know. The fact is that this woman was denied Eucharist based on the discrimination of the priest involved. Many Catholic churches across the country are open and affirming, after all Christ did not teach hatred nor discrimination. Not only was the Priest discriminatory, he also showed no compassion to the woman who just lost her mother. Not exactly Christ or Catholic teachings, are they?

      • Hi Trucker,
        I submit that if an adulterer or pedophile unrepentantly admitted his offense just prior to mass, he too would be denied communion.
        If you had read the article I posted, you would see that, in fact, she did receive communion.

      • TOLERANCE works both ways, Why must the Catholic Church break ITS rules to comply with “Gay Catholics”?? There is NO such a thing, because a CATHOLIC knows that same sex relations are prohibited by the Church and sinful, so if I go rob a bank, Can I call myself a law abiding citizen? Should I sue the police department after I get send to jail??

        • This is not about tolerance. It is about rights of people and a religion who is out of touch and whose main “figure” condemns its members. Jesus never did that, yet your “Pope” does. Nice, what happened to “thou shall not judge.” Or, is that not a Catholic thing either. So, it is prohibited to judge, as it is to lie. And, how can you compare civil rights to a crime? It shows that you certainly do practice hatred. That is such a simplistic view, I can’t even embellish in my response to you. You might as well be one of those who have turned our kids into committing suicide. With people like you/all of you “preachers of ‘convenient love'” who needs enemies? Amen to the both of you and may God bless you and forgive you both!

          • Chauffeur | March 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm |

            To Ralph: Condemn? Who condemned whom? As for judging, the woman in this case admitted that she wasn’t properly disposed for receiving communion prior to the mass. Nobody has a civil right to receive communion. Hatred? I’m offering to explain Catholic beliefs out of respect and concern for those involved and interested. May God bless you too!

  2. My sympathies to Ms. Johnson for her experience. As a gay man and non-practicing Catholic–I can understand refusing communion–but the priest could have avoided the scene by providing the courtesy of telling her before mass. What I can’t condone is his leaving the altar and refusing to go to the cemetery! The church today is sadly even more right wing now than when my mother died in 2001. Her ceremony (and burial) was held at the funeral home, presided over not by the parish pastor–but by my request and his acceptance– the priest(then retired) who attended my Father 8 years before in the VA nursing home and knew my Mother. During all of this, my ex-partner was holding my hand or had his arm around me; organ music/songs performed by a gay nightclub owner my mother loved; 3 of her 6 pallbearers were gay and the scripture readings done by a gay friend and ex-Christian brother. 11 years later my friends still talk about this!

    • Ellen Mahan | August 29, 2016 at 11:03 am |

      Bill your comments are right on point. If the priest was going to deny her receiving communion there should have been a very private discussion before the Mass began. For it to happen during Mass indicates to me that he was trying to punish and humiliate her during her mother’s funeral… and then refused to go to the cemetery…. I do not find his actions appropriate.
      As Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., stated, “The Eucharist is a sacrament, not a political football,”
      This priest needs some counseling his attitude and behavior is not acceptable and only further separates gay Catholics from the church.

  3. Chauffer: My name is Tucker, not TRucker. Although, I understand you must have some sort of affinity for drivers.

    You stated: “I submit that if an adulterer or pedophile unrepentantly admitted his offense just prior to mass, he too would be denied communion.”

    Let me make this very clear, I, in no way was comparing pedophilia or adultry to being born gay. I was referring to the massive hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being GLBT. After all, we are all made in God’s image. The fact that you missed my point in its entirety, proves how narrow minded your comments are.

    And, yes, I did read the article you provided. I would suggest that you research objective news reports to gather your facts. Also a must read is a great book, “What the Bible really says about Homosexuality,” written by Danial A. Helminiak, Ph.D., respected theologian and Roman Catholic priest. You must be really struggling with the concept. Perhaps you should take the log out of your eye before removing the stye from mine.

    • Its their stupid religion and they get to decide how to do their stupid religion. If you dont like it dont try and be part of their stupid religion!

    • You open with a stupid comment “affinity for drivers”

      “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being GLBT”
      Wrong according to the Catholic Religion and what the buybull says!

      “What the Bible really says about Homosexuality,”
      Doesnt matter what lies homosexual catholic priests make for their stupid situation.
      Their buybull says, NO HOMOSEXALITY!

      Anyone who denies this is just lying to themself, and making themself a bigger joke.

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