Pastors and prophets and genuine leadership

Pastors and prophets and genuine leadership March 1, 2012

Father Marcel Guarnizo is kind of a jerk.

And Guarnizo’s jerkitude is compounded by the example and the instruction of the bishops whose lead he is following. When someone who’s prone to being a jerk is commissioned to serve as a local pastor and takes his orders from a band of bishops who have made pompous culture-war grandstanding their primary concern, then bad things are bound to happen.

A bad thing happened.

Taking his cue from the battling bishops and borrowing a page out of Fred Phelps’ handbook, Father Guarnizo recently decided to turn a funeral into a political protest. He couldn’t resist the chance to kick a woman when she was down. Here’s the appalling result:

Deep in grief, Barbara Johnson stood first in the line for Communion at her mother’s funeral Saturday morning. But the priest in front of her immediately made it clear that she would not receive the sacramental bread and wine.

Johnson, an art-studio owner from the District, had come to St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg (Md.) with her lesbian partner. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had learned of their relationship just before the service.

“He put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin,’ ” she recalled Tuesday.

… Family members said the priest left the altar while Johnson, 51, was delivering a eulogy and did not attend the burial or find another priest to be there.

John Shore spoke with Barbara Johnson and provides more details of Guarnizo’s ugly negligence:

At the moment Barbara began delivering her mother’s eulogy, [Guarnizo] made a point of rising from his seat and walking off the altar.

Then, after the funeral service, Father Knows Worst hid in his chambers, and after fifteen minutes sent out word that he would not be accompanying the grieving party to the cemetery, leaving no one to properly bury Barbara’s mother, a life-long devout Catholic.

This is the inevitable result of the kind of “leadership” the U.S. Catholic bishops have been providing. This is what their priorities look like when expressed at the local parish level. This is what pastoral care — even at a funeral — is perverted into when the leadership’s agenda of putting women in their place and reflexively shouting down GLBT people at every turn is put into practice in local churches.

But the bad thing that happened at St. John Neumann Catholic Church is not the only thing that happened there.

Father Guarnizo was a jerk and a coward — he literally hid after striking his “bold” blow for Cardinal Dolan and the Manhattan Declaration. But after the jerk left, others displayed kindness, care and the sort of leadership that again shows why I don’t regard the battling bishops as legitimate spokesmen or representatives of the church over which they claim to reign.

Johnson is resolutely insisting on an apology from Father Guarnizo and wants to see him removed from pastoral ministry so that “he never be allowed to harm another family in this way again.” But she also stressed that many others at the funeral treated her family and her mother with genuine love and respect. John Shore shares her story:

Father No communion for you! picked a spectacularly horrendous time to bare his bigoted fangs, [but] he is also the sole villainous Catholic in a story starring a great many Catholic heroes.

Yes, Fr. Guarnizo denied Barbara communion. But almost immediately thereafter a layperson acting as the service’s Eucharistic Minister did lovingly serve Barbara communion.

Yes, Fr. Guarnizo essentially shunned Barbara. But directly following the service (and to a necessarily lesser degree during the service), Barbara was also surrounded and hugged by fellow Catholics who made a point of telling her that Fr. Marcel in no way represented the love of the Church.

Yes, Fr. Guarnizo shamelessly refused to go to the cemetery. But immediately thereupon the funeral director (“an angel,” says Barbara) comforted Barbara with assurances that he would quickly secure a priest to perform the burial. He then turned to Fr. Peter Sweeney, who wasted no time at all stepping right out of his retirement, and right into the Johnson funeral service.

“Father Sweeney was perfect,” says Barbara. “We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more loving priest. Both Father Sweeney and the funeral director acted as soothing balms on our very scarred hearts.”

That’s the church being the church — mourning with those who mourn as the body of Christ present in the world.

The current crop of bishops has made it more difficult for the church to be the church, but for all their supposed authority, many of their “followers” are refusing to follow their poor example. Father Sweeney and the other Catholic officials who reached out to Johnson with apologies and concern for her family demonstrated again that the preening peacocks are a vanguard without an army.

The bishops’ recent public behavior — demanding that women be denied health care, threatening to withhold care for the sick — seems driven more by their need to posture as the brave defenders of Christendom. Their game-plan is spelled out in the Manhattan Declaration. Just like the pseudo-intellectuals behind that document, they’ve revealed themselves to be driven by an overriding need to pretend that they are bold and heroic prophets — William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all rolled into one. And in pursuit of that “prophetic” pretense they have, like the rest of the religious right, abandoned any notion of also acting as pastors caring for people.

Real prophets are always also pastors. And real pastors are always also prophets. They care for the wounded, the vulnerable, the excluded and the powerless and, because they care for them, they angrily condemn the powerful predators who wound, weaken and exclude.

Fr. Guarnizo imagined he was striking a “prophetic” blow against the enemies of Christendom, but he failed both as a prophet and as a pastor. And Fr. Sweeney’s pastoral care to a family in need proved to be far more prophetically courageous than anything we’ve seen from the bishops lately.

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  • I used to be a member of an internet community that was expressly
    anti-bigotry, until it turned out that the moderators thought
    anti-religious bigotry was A-OK because “it’s a choice, it’s not an
    unchangeable part of who you are like race or sexual orientation.” But
    my religious beliefs and identity are part of who I am – a version of me
    that was Lutheran instead of Quaker would not be me, any more than “gay
    me” or “neurotypical me” or “functioning renal system me” would be me.

    My ex-SGF mistakenly suggest that my atheism was a “choice,” though in that instance it was a poor choice of words–but my reaction was because it’s been stated intentionally before.

    This mystifies me. I don’t really see the religious as having made a “choice,” as that implies that I am simultaneously affirming my correct-ness and their inaccurate “choice” in defiance of it.

    In fact, I only ever got confused by people who expressed a faith I couldn’t understand as being anything but a choice. I didn’t see how that could be an expressed religious belief, but that’s because my lack of belief makes it hard for me to comprehend placing rituals of any kind (strict or abstract) into an important role in life and is my own hang up.

    On a weird side-note, I’ve got a half-crazy renal system, too! What the heck is this with the matching?

    (plus I always kinda thought Quakers were cool, but that’s not quite the same as being one)

  • Ursula L

     “In 1989 the Vatican published the revised Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) for the United States. The long-standing prohibition of eulogies at Catholic funerals was again upheld and restated. ‘A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.’ 

    What an inhumane and inhuman policy.  Evil.  

    To take the death of a human being, and turn it into an opportunity to force mourners into being a captive and vulnerable audience to be preached at. While simultaneously forbidding any mention of the person being mourned, their qualities and achievements, the things that they will be missed for.  

    If this is official Catholic policy, than the priest in Fred’s post was correctly following the spirit of the official Catholic policy of using funerals to preach at mourners rather than to comfort them.

    And the Catholics who were kind and accepting and comforting were being that way in defiance of Catholic policy and what is officially Catholic.  They weren’t being the “real” Catholics at all.  They were being real humans in defiance of the Catholic Church.

    Fred, you’ll remember some time back, when you wrote a post about how the fact that one can assume that some QUILTBAG folks were members of Rick Warren’s church and found a space for themselves, deeply closeted, in spite of Rick Warren’s loud spoken bigotry and homophobia, was evidence that there was some tolerance and goodness towards QUILTBAG folks in Rick Warren.  Quite a few of us made the point that this was only evidence that people who knew that he’d hurt them if he knew the truth were successfully concealing the truth from him, showing, at most, his gullibility. 

    The feudal organization that is the Catholic Church is not a democratically organized liberal American Baptist congregation.  And you can’t evaluate it in that way.

    When a serf in a feudal society is a decent human being in spite of the oppressive and oppressively enforced rules of the aristocrats, that is not evidence that the “real” feudal society is decent and humane.  It is evidence that serfs are human beings, and will do their best to be humane in spite of the horrible nature of feudalism.  

    It is evidence that supports making the society democratic to empower the humane serfs, not evidence that the feudal society is humane. 

    The goodness of ordinary Catholics in spite of the horribleness and inhumanity of Catholic policies such as requiring homilies and sermons at funerals while forbidding eulogies does not speak to the goodness of the “real” Catholic church.  It speaks to the goodness of ordinary people who happen for various reasons to be Catholic, in defiance of the actual and real policy of the Catholic Church.  

    Fred, there are very good reasons why you prefer a democratically organized liberal American Baptist congregation.  Trust the tradition and values of democracy and liberalism.

    You’re inclined to want to see the best in everything and everyone, if possible.  But don’t let that inclination blind you to the evils of autocratic organizations, just because some people within those organizations manage to be decent in spite of autocratically created and enforced policy.  

  • Tricksterson

    Pretty much a case of “We’ll overlook the rules in the name of common decency except when we decide it’s convenient for us not to.”

  • GGandPAPA

    Well, things will never be just for all people until their is a Gay Saint, of course a celibate Gay Saint.     Also, when I go to Mass on Sundays, it seems that everyone in the church is receiving communion: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been a long tradition in the church.   

  • Tricksterson

    What you mean is “a gay saint the Church will admit was gay”.  I’d be willing to bet any amount you care to name that there are already a few gay saints.

  • By attempting to recieve communion, she deliberately placed the priest in a position of either holding to Church teaching or acting as if it didn’t matter and that said teachings were relative to the individual.

    Cry me a fucking river, please.

  • My ex-SGF mistakenly suggest that my atheism was a “choice,” though in that instance it was a poor choice of words–but my reaction was because it’s been stated intentionally before.

    While children may be born atheist by default, reliigous belief isn’t written in the DNA the way sexuality seems to be. Please to not be implying this.

  • Junecourage

    Just as people are angry, shocked and disgusted because the priest used the occaision to make a political point, it is a shame to see the responses to his outrageous behaviour being hijacked in a similar way.

  •  I…w…what?
    I was not implying it was written in DNA o.O

  • Your argument had the flavor of an equivalency I don’t feel is valid: religious belief can become a part of oneself, but it doesn’t arise from something inherent to oneself in the way that sexual/gender identity or sexual attraction seem to be (i.e. due to a person’s inherited traits and the expression of those traits as genes are switched on or off).