Maryland priest denies communion to lesbian at funeral — UPDATED

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It’s been an extremely difficult week for Barbara Johnson — perhaps the most difficult week of her life.

It all started on Saturday at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, where friends and family had gathered to say goodbye to Barbara’s mother, who died last week after a brief illness.

Just a few minutes before the funeral began, Father Marcel Guarnizo, who was presiding over the service, apparently learned that Barbara was involved in a romantic relationship with another woman.

A lifelong Catholic and former Catholic school teacher, Barbara says she hadn’t even considered that her sexual orientation would be a problem with Father Marcel until she stepped forward to take communion.

“He said, ‘I can not give you communion because you live with a woman,” Barbara says.

Though shaken by Father Marcel’s actions, Barbara says she tried to compose herself to give her mother the dignified funeral she deserved.  So a few minutes later, Barbara began her eulogy.

“At which time Father Marcel left the altar and didn’t return until I finished my eulogy,” Barbara says.

According to Barbara, things got even worse, because after first refusing to give her communion, and then walking off the altar when Barbara was giving her eulogy, Father Marcel refused to go with Barbara’s mother’s body to the cemetery in Aspen Hill. Barbara says she was told that Father Marcel had suddenly become ill.

In a written statement, the Archdiocese of Washington conceded that Father Marcel had acted improperly, 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.”

Read more.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has now picked up the story:

Messages left for [Father] Guarnizo were not immediately returned, and archdiocesan officials declined to answer questions about what actually happened.

“In matters of faith and morals, the Church has the responsibility of teaching and of bringing the light of the Gospel message to the circumstances of our day,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person. 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.”

[Larry] Johnson [brother of the woman denied communion] said his parents were lifelong churchgoers, that the four children attended Catholic schools, that his sister taught at Catholic schools, and that neither he nor his sister see this as a reason to criticize the church more broadly.

“We agreed this is not a discussion about gay rights, or about the teachings of the Catholic Church,” he said. “We’re not in this to Catholic-bash. That’s the farthest thing from our minds. We just want the public square to have knowledge of what this priest did.”

UPDATE II: The WaPo has also interviewed the woman who was denied communion, who described how the priest learned the news:

Johnson said that her partner of 20 years had been helping the family at the church earlier when the priest asked who she was. “And she said, ‘I’m her partner,’ ” Johnson recalled.

When Guarnizo covered the wine and wafers with his hand during Communion, Johnson stood there for a moment, thinking he would change his mind, she said. “I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying,” she said. “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.”

That seems at odds with a commenter here who wrote:

I happen to know “First hand” that Barbara went into the sacristy before the mass and introduced herself as a lesbian in an active lesbian relationship… introducing her partner as “her lover” (her words). She left the sacristy before Fr. could have the “private discussion” you talk about. Barbaras “Lover” blocked his way out of the sacristy when he attempted to speak with her further.

Stay tuned.  I don’t think this story is over yet.

UPDATE III: Canon lawyer Ed Peters — a frequent commenter on this post — has weighed in on his own blog:

This is what happens when bizarre events (like an admitted practicing lesbian presenting herself for holy Communion in the first place), happen on the watch of priests whose love for the Eucharist probably exceeds their knowledge of the law on reception of holy Communion (through no fault of their own, doubtless), before a well-wired-world that can broadcast misinformation and even flatly wrong interpretations of an event with nary a care for correcting itself later. No matter who gets hurt along the way. And plenty of people have been hurt in this one.

I have expended no little effort over many years (like about 22) trying to get Canon 915 correctly understood and properly applied in ecclesiastical life. In the last few years, some signs of progress have appeared. Now, out of nowhere, Canon 915 is being invoked by some as justification for an action that, reading the facts as alleged in the light most favorable to the minister, would not have justified his withholding holy Communion from the woman in question. Specifically, a few minutes conversation (if that’s what happened), mostly with a third party (if that’s what happened), would not suffice, in the face of numerous canons protecting the right of the faithful to receive the sacraments, to verify either the notoriety of the (objectively) sinful situation, or to verify the obstinacy of the would-be recipient, both of which elements, among others in Canon 915, mustbe demonstrated before withholding holy Communion.

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