Barbara Johnson’s mother died unexpectedly. That’s always sad. Her family planned a simple funeral for last Saturday in the setting of her lifelong faith, the Roman Catholic Church. The priest, Father Marcel Guarnizo, learned that Barbara is a lesbian when he was introduced to her partner of 19 years shortly before the funeral mass. No matter what their own feelings might be about the status of another’s soul, pastors are trained to act with politeness and restraint. They are supposed to be models of grace and forgiveness.
The church is in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. The state legislature of Maryland just voted to allow the legal sanctioning of marriages between consenting adults of the same gender, as my own state of Washington did a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps Father Marcel was upset about this seeming trend of historical inevitability.
When you are a pastor, administering Communion in a service, you know the people you’re giving the cookie to have sinned. Everyone has. That’s the point of the ritual. You offer the wafer, as Jesus would have broken bread with you, to show welcome at the eternal table where all who seek sustenance and redemption will be fed. For the religious, it’s a deeply meaningful act.
When Barbara came to the altar rail to receive Communion, Father Marcel covered the plate. He told her she was not worthy to receive Communion because she lived with another woman, that the church considers that to be sinful. He did it to shame her before her family, even though Barbara’s family already knows and accepts her sexual orientation. Her brother moved to comfort Barbara as she stood in shock. But she didn’t break down or leave. She still had the eulogy to give for her mother.
When she went to the podium to begin, Father Marcel walked off the altar and out of the church. Barbara’s family concluded the service at the church, and proceeded to the gravesite to bury her mother. Father Marcel sent word that he was “ill”, and would not be going to the grave. On this short notice, their funeral director rustled up a retired priest, and he administered the rest of the duties at the grave.
Barbara contacted Father Marcel’s superiors at the Archdiocese to tell them how her family had been wronged. They wrote her a nice apology, affirming that their policy is that when priests have a problem with parishioners, they are supposed to deal with it in a private, pastoral setting. They said they were sorry for his lack of kindness. Barbara says she’s glad to accept the apology, but that the man should be removed from pastoral duties to prevent harm to other families. I agree with her.