Barbara Johnson and the Quality of Mercy

Okay, here’s a list of the angles related to the Fr. Guarnizo controversy I’m not covering:

1. Whether or not Guarnizo was right to deny Communion to Barbara Johnson at her mother’s funeral Mass. (Canon law professor Ed Peters says no; at least half the people in Deacon Greg’s combox disagree with him.)

2. Whether the archdiocese has stated its real reasons for placing Guarnizo on administrative leave. (According to archdiocesan vicar-general Bishop Barry Knestout, it’s reacting to charges that Guarnizo behaved in an “intimidating” manner toward laypeople, including parish staff members, in the week following the funeral. Countless skeptics believe Cardinal Wuerl is serving up Guarnizo’s head as a peace offering to the LGBT community, or perhaps to the media in general.)

No, the only aspect of this dustup that compels my attention is the letter that Barbara Johnson sent Guarnizo after the Mass. It includes the lines: “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.”

Villifying Johnson is the last thing I want to do. In some ways, I can relate to her. Johnson’s adopted some Buddhist beliefs and practices — so has my mother. I also know firsthand how flexibility, or the lack of it, on a presiding clergyman’s part can make or break a parent’s funeral. In a sort of post-mortem reversion to Orthodox Judaism, my father was buried by a rabbi of the Chabad sect. Although, per mitzvah, the rabbi declined to shake hands with any of the women present, he was very patient in coaching me and my half-brothers through the Kaddish. If the rabbi was thinking, “G-d, what a bunch of loser apostates,” he hid it well.

With this kind of religious bricolage in my background, I can understand why Johnson presented herself for Communion, and why she felt injured at being denied it. What I don’t get is her vindictiveness. Why pledge to wreck a man’s career right out of the gate? Why not go for the kind of simple apology that the archdiocese ended up granting in fact? I understand that Johnson’s brother also felt affronted by Guarnizo’s behavior, but wasn’t it a little presumptuous of them to label Guarnizo a menace to families everywhere?

Even if Guarnizo did mis-handle the situation, I can’t believe that going for his jugular was the good Catholic thing to do, or even, for that matter, the good Buddhist thing. I’ve done enough time in retail and other forms of peonage to have heard “I’ll have your job for this.” Not once did it make me think, “Gee, that person must have a legitimate gripe.” What it made me think was, “Why can’t these no-class loudmouths stay in Jersey, where they belong?”

According to one interpretation, Johnson was looking for trouble from the start. A Deacon’s Bench reader, who claims to have been in the sacristy before the funeral Mass, says that Johnson introduced her partner to Guarnizo using the loaded term “lover.” Guarnizo tells more or less the same story, adding that Johnson’s partner blocked his exit from the sacristy. He also says that the archdiocese’s charges of intimidation refer to his attempts to gather affidavits from eyewitnesses.

Accurate or not, this will be the version most Catholics end up accepting. Priest done in by lesbian sting operation — it’s too juicy to let go. And Johnson will bear a big share of the responsibility. Written in undisguised anger and building up to an open threat, that letter of hers lends the story just enough substance to live on. Johnson wanted Guarnizo gone; now he is gone. Just goes to show you should be careful what you put in writing.

Certainly plenty of priests have done and said things to set my teeth on edge. One guy in particular has always impressed me as an overbearing, self-important clod, happy to suck all the oxygen out of every room he enters. To my ordained readers, let me say that the man, from what I’ve heard, used to work in sales. His type seems far more typical of my occupational caste than theirs.

One time I saw him lecturing a pair of homeless who’d showed up on the Church steps to beg. As I understand it, he was — to his credit — offering them to buy them sandwiches. Yet, from his body language and theirs, I could tell he was making them accept a side dish of humiliation into the bargain. I quit the scene before Father read them a chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

A few minutes later, I saw the two homeless in the parking lot. It was April, I believe — an unseasonably cold night. One of them was wearing a tank top, and I noticed that his arms were turning the color of strawberries. Remembering the obnoxious priest, I thought, “I’ll show this [dysphemism for "Father"] who the real Christian is.” With that, I pulled a half-length wool jacket out of my trunk and thrust it on the guy’s back. If you have to engage in macho one-upmanship, I figured, you might as well do it St. Francis-style. I still miss that coat, but the satisfaction of that moment has, at times, done its share to warm me up.

Johnson did, in fact, fight Guarnizo to a draw in the corporal works of mercy dozens. As she eulogized her mother, Guarnizo repaired to the rest room. He did not accompany the body to the gravesite. He has since explained that he was suffering from migraine, but Johnson can still claim to have been the last woman standing. Am I so off base for supposing that fact ought to have soothed her into a more generous frame of mind? Isn’t it better to be be remembered as Marc Antony than as Brutus?

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