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.


Filed under Ethics and Morality, forgiveness

21 responses to “Unforgivable

  1. I’m at work, hence, don’t have enough time to express how appalled I am with the church and that priest. I am so very tired of religious leaders imposing and interpreting for the rest of the world how we should show our love to God and who God does and doesn’t love. I AM TIRED OF THAT. I am going to write to this church I am so angry and offended. Barbara and her family deserved better than how badly she was treated just because she lived in a manner that wasn’t in alignment with what the Catholic church claims is “right”. I call bull sh*t. Mikey, here is a spoken word piece. ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY It helps me to know that not everyone feels the way these hypocritical churches do.

    • So cool to meet you here, Maria. I knew that piece you linked already, but I agree with the sentiments. It’s powerful. My point in rewriting this news story I read about Barbara Johnson is to open the door for a discussion about LGBT rights. The church is an institution, like the government. Institutions are slow to change. We individuals can change and grow faster. We have to help them out, to make them better. People can say one wrong thing at the office holiday party and lose their jobs. I’m not saying Father Marcel should be de-frocked. Neither is Barbara. He could be reassigned to helping people die with dignity in the terminal wards, for example.

  2. Mikey, this post both stunned and greatly saddened me. I am so sorry that Barbara, her partner and family had to be put through this in their time of great grief (or ever, for that matter).

    I remember an equally disturbing situation years ago, involving a local parish priest of a former adoption client of mine. She had been referred for adoption an infant girl from India. While the paperwork was being processed, the child died over there. The prospective mother and the children she already had were inconsolable. She went to the priest she had known for years and asked him to have a service for the baby. I don’t recall the details and am not Catholic, so don’t know the difference between an acual Mass and the type of service she requested, but he refused. He did so in a most unkind manner, as well. He told her the child was not Catholic and was probably “part of a pagan religion”, that it wasn’t really her child anyway and she should just move on with her life. I was shocked and she was devastated. He did not offer the family any comfort or help. Needless to say my client never returned to that church and I suspect her faith was in many ways, shaken.

    I am sure we can find insensitive, ignorant people in any profession but I do believe that clergy need to have some people skills and some sensitivity training in order to do their jobs, regardless of what their own belief systems and values are. I think a man like that priest ought to be removed and not permitted to harm and insult others.

    • I rewrote the story precisely because it has all the elements of the learning process people must go through in order to be compassionate “outside the rules”. Though I am Christian by culture, the religion I aspire to most is kindness. It’s no challenge to be good to people you already agree with. The goal is to treat everyone well, most especially “those who trespass against us”. I know this isn’t news to you, Iris, because you are in a service-oriented profession. Many times when I cared for Alzheimer’s patients, they said hurtful things and exhibited bigotry. How you act in response to bad behavior indicates the quality of your own character. Father Marcel needs, in a sense, to go back to school for a remedial course in kindness. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your related story.

      • Yes, a remedial course in kindness..That is great food for thought! I wonder if a lot of people simply never learned this lesson in the first place.
        I can think of many examples right now of how unkind people can be/have been, but I am pleased in a way, for having been the recipient of their lack of kindness, because it helped me reinforce and learn how I never want to be to others.

  3. Thanks for writing about this story. I am a “cradle Catholic” — divorced in the early 80’s; now remarried for 30 years . I’m a church organist. I’ve played at Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Christian Science churches – and more. Recently I played a funeral at a Catholic Church. The priest made it clear who could receive Communion and who could ask for a “blessing” instead. I didn’t go up at all. Not worthy. Grrrr…..

    • If you came to MY house, I would definitely offer you a cookie. Some people have no sense of basic hospitality. We must model proper behavior for them, so they can change. It doesn’t alter your experience, Karen, but I’ve been at plenty of churches where the priests explicitly state “All are welcome at the table”. The rules regarding qualifications for Communion can be printed in the bulletin if that’s a concern.

      Lots of people avoid the ritual because it’s not entirely antiseptic. I never put my lips on the cup myself for that reason. I don’t know what kind of germs others have deposited on it. But I still go to the rail. The ritual helps me to be mindful, and I like getting blessed. And I’ll hug anyone, even Republicans! Thanks for reading and offering your own story.

  4. The words: “Judge not and be ye not judged” appear to have exited not only this priests brain, but his heart and soul also.
    I’m appalled…

    …whatever his personal opinion he should have been “professional” enough in his profession to have handled this with the grace and dignity required of him.

    Not only did he fail, but he humiliated people who were already grieving AND disgraced both himself and the church he represents.

    I’m not sure what excuses he thinks are going to cover it when he stands before God to explain his actions one day.

    Those poor people, Barbara’s poor partner… they… … no one deserves this.

    Church inflexibility is why I have faith but now choose to exercise it in the real world where people need it rather than the enclosed “bubble” of the often too comfortable church where I was for instance made to feel guilty for saying at home to feed breakfast to people I unexpectedly put up for the night, rather than attending the morning service and listening to the sermon.

    Basically that rebuke felt so hypocritical and so wrong I never went back. (there were more issues but that was the proverbial straw).

    • I’m so sorry you were made to feel unwelcome, Kiwi. Probably much like you, I feel that the world is the real church, and our mission and ministry is the one we perform toward every living thing. This news story has just begun to get wide coverage. I’ll be interested to see what the Archdiocese does next.

  5. Pie

    Unforgivable, appalling and outrageous.

    I can’t prove it of course, but I feel fairly confident that poor Barbara would not had been the first to receive the rough justice of this pastor, but she may have been the first to seriously challenge him. Her dignified response in the face of this silly man’s behaviour tells you everything about her and even more about him. I hope her request is acted on.

    • Mrs. Invisible had an interesting theory when she read this. She thinks Father Marcel is a closeted gay man, and was angry that he has had to live celibate in order for the church to accept him, while Barbara’s shared life with another woman is becoming legitimized by society.

  6. That is absolutely unforgivable. Sickening and unforgivable! One of many reasons I have chosen not to participate in any “formal” religions. And the church wonders why their memberships continue to shrink. Wake the fuck up and realize it’s 2012 already!

    • The RCC isn’t exactly noted for rapidity in re-assessing past misdeeds. It took four centuries for them to apologize for trying Galileo and suppressing his work, and nearly five hundred years to redress the burning of Joan of Arc by belatedly making her a saint in 1920. I’m pretty much where you are about my allegiance to organized religion. I do still like the tunes, though.

  7. Mikey, I could not agree more. I have two friends who have been same sex partners for 21 years. That is an accomplishment to be congratulated no matter what sex the partners may be! They exhibit a caring and commitment that is the highest example of “family values!”

    One gentleman had a parent die. He had to travel home and mourn by himself because the partner’s presence would not have been accepted and would have been upsetting for the family.

    Just ridiculous! But, at least, it was not a priest behaving publically like you have described. Isn’t religion supposed to be all about treating each other with kindness and love?

    • It is supposed to be about that, so I’m coming more and more to believe Mary’s theory that the priest had a personal crisis over this having to do with his own orientation. The church will have to do some serious damage control. Thanks for weighing in, Debbie.

  8. What harm we do to each other in the name of God. So sad. I wrote a post last year about a grieving daughter, a devout Christian, who sought comfort from her minister about her dad, who died an “unbeliever.” (I don’t even like that term.) The minister looked her right in the eye and told her her dad was in hell.

    Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and each other. It’s one thing to recognize that we often fall short. It’s another to take pride in falling short and use God’s name to justify our failing.

    • Any time the religion others founded in his name fails, it is not the fault of Jesus, but the responsibility of his followers. Thanks for offering your related story of unkindness, Galen. I had a feeling this one would provoke similar experiences from others.

  9. Sad and I would like to say unbelievable, but it’s not.

    • This isn’t the worst of these kinds of stories I’ve heard. It’s just the latest. LGBT people are going through all the same prejudices and injustices that racial, cultural and religious minorities have been subjected to. There do need to be consequences for public misbehavior, but the only permanent solution to the problem of unkindness is kindness. The man needs some kind of therapy, so he can change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s