Last month Loetta Johnson died and her funeral was scheduled for February 25th at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She had been a lifelong faithful Catholic and her funeral mass went as expected until her daughter Barbara went to receive Communion. The priest, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo, put his hand over the communion plate and told her (and everyone else) that he was denying her Communion because she is a lesbian and the Catholic Church does not support her lifestyle.
Like many Catholics this story enraged me and I’m completely supportive of the decision of the Archdiocese of Washington to remove Fr. Guarnizo from his post.
Here are the facts of the case (most of the information here is from the Washington Post article this morning): Before the mass, Fr. Guarnizo met with Ms. Johnson and her partner. He asked Ms. Johnson who the other woman was, and Ms. Johnson identified her as her partner (in Fr. Guarnizo’s account Ms. Johnson made unsolicited announcement that the other woman was her partner, or lover, depending on the account). When Ms. Johnson came for Communion, Fr. Guarnizo refused. He also did not preside at the graveside service; Fr. Guarnizo claims he was suffering from a migrane.
In fairness, after being refused Communion, another Eucharistic Minister (who is not a priest) gave her Communion, and another priest stepped forward and presided at the graveside service. I’m grateful for that.
Longterm readers of this blog know that I was a seminarian with the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers from 1980 to 1985, a seminarian with the Paulist Fathers from 1989 to 1994 and a Paulist Priest from 1994 to 1997. All Eucharistic Ministers (priests, deacons, and laypersons) know that there may be a point where you have to make a split second choice. The person in front of you may be married outside the church, a thief, scoundrel, pedophile, or (God forbid) a non Catholic. In that situation most of us choose to not make a public spectacle and hope that God will sort it out.
That’s what happened to me. I was ordained at St. Paul’s in New York on May 14, 1994. Minutes after I was ordained I was giving Communion and I was presented with the mother of my sister’s husband. I knew she wasn’t Catholic and technically shouldn’t be able to receive Communion. I decided to be generous with the Sacrament and let God sweat the details.
Fr. Guanizo should have done the same. I don’t know if Barbara Johnson thinks of herself as Catholic or was in church only for her mother’s funeral. But then again, I don’t know that she and her partner are sexually active (and are therefore living a lifestyle Fr. Guarnizo finds offensive). I don’t know where she is in her faith journey. I’m grateful that she has found someone to share her life with (and I pray she is as happy in her relationship as I am in my marriage).
I also know that whatever the circumstances, if Fr. Guanzino had given her Communion, it would have given her a generous view of the Catholic Church. I always believed that weddings and funerals were opportunities to present ourselves to people of other faiths, or people who had left us, in our best light. He presented us in our worst light.
I also believe that someday I may need to account to God for my actions. On that day I would rather explain that I was too generous with Communion than too stingy.
Ms. Johnson, please do not let this one priest give you your only face of the Catholic Church. We have many other faces.