WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has apologized to a woman who was denied Holy Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass because she is a lesbian.
Barbara Johnson and her relatives have asked the archdiocese to remove the priest who denied her Communion last Saturday at Saint John Neumann Catholic Church — her mother’s home parish in Gaithersburg, Md. The archdiocese issued a statement saying the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo’s actions violated policy but said any action taken against him will remain confidential because it is a personnel issue.
When she knelt before Guarnizo to receive Communion last Saturday, Johnson said he told her, “I cannot give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.”
Johnson, a 51-year-old art studio owner from Washington, said Thursday that she was stunned — “the most surprised I have ever been in my life” — but did not create a scene. She ultimately received communion from a lay minister.
“I was very composed, but internally I was very upset,” Johnson told The Associated Press.
Guarnizo also left the altar during Johnson’s eulogy and did not accompany the family to her mother’s grave, leaving the family scrambling to find another priest, Johnson said.
Guarnizo could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Johnson said she received apologies from the parish pastor and two diocesan officials, including the Most Rev. Barry Knestout, the auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the archdiocese. Knestout wrote her a letter apologizing for a “lack of pastoral sensitivity.”
“In my years as a priest, I have encountered many pastoral situations and know that kindness to those experiencing personal loss is a necessary part of the church’s call to clarity,” Knestout wrote. “The fact that you did not experience this is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me.”
Johnson said she appreciates the apologies but will continue to ask the archdiocese to remove Guarnizo from the ministry, so that he will “not have the opportunity to inflict this kind of suffering on any family in the future.”
She said she does not want people to leave the church over his treatment of her, adding that she still identifies herself as Catholic.
“The last thing that my mother would want would be for her funeral to turn Catholics away from the faith,” Johnson said.
Communion is the most important sacrament for Catholics, who believe that by consuming bread and wine, they are receiving the literal body and blood of Christ. Catholics are advised not to take Communion if they are conscious of a grave sin without confessing first.
Guidance from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the matter states, in part: “Since it is difficult to know what is in a person’s heart, it is also important that when doubt arises regarding whether a person is properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, it is handled in a pastoral and compassionate manner, privately between the priest and the communicant.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, has spoken out against denying Communion, an issue that was raised during the 2004 presidential campaign when some conservative Catholics said Sen. John Kerry should not receive Communion because he supports abortion rights.
Johnson said she only met Guarnizo on the day of her mother’s funeral and that he only learned she was a lesbian when her partner of 20 years introduced herself.
The experience has left Johnson shaken and disrupted the grieving process, she said.
“It’s really awful,” she said. “I have not been able to properly mourn.”
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