Communion-Withholding Priest Suspended

Barbara Johnson, a lesbian who was denied Communion by the priest at her mother's Gaithersburg funeral, praises decision and hopes for healing

A Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington who denied communion to Barbara Johnson, a lesbian, at her mother’s funeral has been removed from ministry and placed on administrative leave.

A three-paragraph letter from an archdiocesan official, dated March 9, said that ”effective today, Father Marcel Guarnizo’s assignment at St. John Neumann [Gaithersburg] is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly faculties removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed.”

Bishop Barry Knestout also said ”credible allegations” against the priest for ”intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry” prompted the action.

Knestout cited ”the grave nature of these allegations,” subsequent ”confusion in the parish” and parishioners’ ”concerns” as reasons for prohibiting Guarnizo ”from exercising any priestly ministry” in the archdiocese ”until all matters are appropriately resolved with the hope that he might return to ministry.”

Knestout is an auxiliary bishop who functions as chief of staff for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, spiritual leader of the archdiocese. The letter was addressed to its clergy.

During Sunday Masses, the Rev. Thomas G. LaHood, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, read the letter to parishioners, saying Guarnizo’s removal was not related to the funeral Mass incident, but “pertains to actions over the past week or two,” a point LaHood reiterated.

Specifics of those actions are unclear, but conservative bloggers have defended Guarnizo at the same time challenging Johnson’s version of the story by citing anonymous sources as witnesses to the incident in their discrediting of her account.

Johnson has also been inaccurately dismissed in the conservative blogosphere, she says, as a ”Muslim, Buddhist, and communist.”

Reached by telephone, Johnson said, ”I am a confirmed Catholic who has been greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk.”

”One of the most relevant quotes of Merton,” she added, ”is his saying something to the effect that before he died, he wanted to be the best Buddhist he could be. If that’s good enough for a Catholic Trappist monk, who is one of the most holy men of the 20th century, that’s good enough for me.”

Johnson went on to say her ”embracing of the teachings of the Buddha, in addition to the teachings I learned as child and hold dear to this day, is no contradiction for me.”

”Nothing I have done or said in relationship to Buddhism conflicts whatsoever with my identity and practice as a Catholic.”

LGBT Catholics greeted news of Guarnizo’s removal with relief.

”I hope that any Church official tempted to use the Eucharist as a weapon or punishment will take notice of what happened here, and refrain from similar action,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a national LGBT Catholic advocacy organization.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Mount Rainier-based, gay-positive New Ways Ministry, said that removing Guarnizo ”was a good first step.”

”Bishop Knestout’s letter should definitely be included in any investigation of ‘intimidating behavior,’ since that label can be accurately applied to his denial of communion to Ms. Johnson at her mother’s funeral. For that reason, Ms. Johnson and her family most certainly should be consulted in this investigation,” said DeBernardo.

Lesbian feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt offered an assessment. “While the archdiocese has gone to some lengths to say that the removal of the priest from pastoral ministry was unrelated to the refusal to give Communion to Barbara Johnson, one hopes that that action, combined with his apparent unwillingness to sit politely for her eulogy for her deceased mother and his inability to accompany the family to the cemetery for the final prayers were clues to some serious problems,” she said.

Hunt is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), based in Silver Spring.

Johnson said she was denied communion during her mother’s funeral Mass Saturday, Feb. 25, when the presiding priest, Guarnizo, told her, “I cannot give you Communion, because you live with a woman and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.”

The Washington Archdiocese acknowledged in a statement that Guarnizo had acted inappropriately.

Johnson also received an apology through correspondence from Knestout.

Altogether, the most hurtful of Guarnizo’s actions was his not being present at the cemetery with the family for their mother’s burial.

That is ”most egregious and upsetting to us,” said Johnson during a telephone interview.

”It wasn’t my funeral, it was our mother’s funeral. As her children who adore her, it was our responsibility to make sure she had a beautiful and holy funeral, a sacred ritual for her soul,” Johnson explained.

Although Guarnizo refused her the Eucharist, Johnson in fact received Communion from a lay minister during the funeral Mass, she said.

Johnson voiced praise for Knestout’s apology and LaHood’s pastoral care.

Initially, Johnson ”reached out to Father Marcel through email,” she said. But getting no reply, ”I wrote to LaHood. He was loving, pastoral, compassionate and very kind in our subsequent telephone conversation.”

Asked about her initial insistence on receiving an apology from Guarnizo, Johnson said, ”I am done.”

And yet, ”I will always welcome a conversation with him, always,” she said. ”I have prayed that the two of us could have a conversation because I think we are more alike than different in our love for the church.”

”I am the kind of person who likes resolution,” Johnson added. ”I would cherish a direct, private conversation.”

© 2012 by Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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