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Lesbian denied communion at mother's funeral
by Chuck Colbert
2012-03-03

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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 locally and beyond.

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 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. Johnson has ties to Chicago, having lived here for some time.

"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 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.

Joe Murray, executive director of Chicago's Rainbow Sash Movement, was pointed in his assessment. "I think this illustrates how open to bullying some priests can be under the current teaching on the homosexual person in the church," he said.

"The present climate of hostility to everything LGBT in the Catholic Church, I fear, has only encouraged this priest to take this course of action," said Murray.

Equally sharp was lesbian feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. who voiced similar sentiments. "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.

And yet Chris Pett, president of Dignity Chicago, sounded a softer tone. "The Catholic Church has always taught that its mission is to be the sacrament of Christ to the world, an agent of healing and spiritual nurturance. It is our belief as LGBT Roman Catholic communities, like Dignity Chicago, that we are called to live that mission every day and in every situation," he said.

"It appears more and more that the Spirit is calling us to be that sacramental presence of Christ to our community; and we will continue to be faithful to that call, in spite of efforts by leaders in the Church to deny our dignity and baptismal rights as happened in Maryland," Pett 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 rule in the Chicago archdiocese under leadership of Cardinal Francis George.

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."

- Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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