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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