Barbara Johnson was denied communion and the priest walked out on her mother's… (Marvin Joseph/The Washington…)
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 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.
She reacted with stunned silence. Her anger and outrage have now led her and members of her family to demand that Guarnizo be removed from his ministry.
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.
“You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me,” she wrote in a letter to Guarnizo. “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.”
Late Tuesday, Johnson received a letter of apology from the Rev. Barry Knestout, one of the archdiocese’s highest-ranking administrators, who said the lack of “kindness” she and her family received “is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me.”
“I am sorry that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life, in light of her faith in Jesus Christ, was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity,” Knestout wrote. “I hope that healing and reconciliation with the Church might be possible for you and any others who were affected by this experience. In the meantime, I will offer Mass for the happy repose of your mother’s soul. May God bring you and your family comfort in your grief and hope in the Resurrection.”
Johnson called the letter “comforting” and said she greatly appreciates the apology. But, she added, “I will not be satisfied” until Guarnizo is removed.
The priest’s action has also triggered an uproar among gay rights activists and enlivened some religious conservatives. It came just days after the Maryland Senate approved legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in the state; Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is expected to sign it this week.
“Fr. Marcel Guarnizo has been thrown under the bus for following Canon Law 915!” wrote one Catholic blogger in the archdiocese. “The issue here is not the priest but Barbara Johnson.”
Archdiocese officials at first issued a short statement saying that the priest’s actions were against “policy” and that they would look into it as a personnel issue.
“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the statement said. “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”
Messages for Guarnizo and other parish staff were not returned. Neither he nor other parish leaders were at the church or the rectory Tuesday night.
Active Catholics in the Greater Washington region said they could not recall another recent occasion when a priest had refused to administer the sacrament to a gay Catholic. Guarnizo’s refusal, they said, seemed at odds with the strong stand against denial of Communion to Catholics enunciated by the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Wuerl said he did not believe in denying Communion because it is impossible to know what is in another person’s heart. The issue took off during the 2004 presidential campaign, when some conservative Catholic leaders said that Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic candidate, should be denied Communion because of his pro-choice views.
Johnson said that her partner of 20 years had been helping the family at the church earlier when the priest asked who she was. “And she said, ‘I’m her partner,’ ” Johnson recalled.
When Guarnizo covered the wine and wafers with his hand during Communion, Johnson stood there for a moment, thinking he would change his mind, she said. “I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying,” she said. “My mother’s body was behind me, and all I wanted to do was provide for her, and the final thing was to make a beautiful funeral, and here I was letting her down because there was a scene.”