Some weeks it’s harder to be a Catholic than other weeks. This is one of those weeks, with two painful stories: 1) a lesbian is denied communion at her mother’s funeral Mass in Gaithersburg, Maryland; 2) a gay music teacher is fired from a Catholic school near St. Louis, Missouri. Can we find hope in either or both of these terrible situations?
This long post is divided into three sections: 1) the Maryland story; 2) the Missouri story; 3) possibilities for finding hope.
The week began with the story of Barbara Johnson, the lesbian woman who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral at St John Neumann parish, Gaithersburg, Maryland. You can read the initial story here. Since then, news outlets across the country have run with the story. The Washington Post’s article was printed on the front page, and contains a link to the apology letter sent to Ms. Johnson by Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Washington. Catholic and other religious leaders have responded to this outrage through the National Gay and Lesbian Religious Leaders’ Roundtable in a conglomerate statement of opinions.
Of all the things I’ve read about this disgraceful incident, the best piece of journalism comes from National Catholic Reporter “Young Voices” columnist, Kate Childs-Graham. Probably because of her strong connections in the Catholic LGBT community, she was able to achieve what more seasoned journalists failed to do: she interviewed Barbara Johnson herself. This expanded excerpt from her column provides details that no one else has reported:
“. . . [I]n a compelling phone interview Wednesday, Johnson said the denial was just the climax of a series of unfortunate and uncompassionate events surrounding her mother’s funeral.
“In the weeks and months leading up to her mother’s death, Johnson, who was raised Catholic and has attended and taught at Catholic schools, said she was virtually unaware of the fight for same-sex marriage in her home state of Maryland, which is set to legalize the practice this week following the state senate’s Feb. 23 approval.
“Instead, Johnson said she spent every one of her waking hours in the past weeks making sure her mother had the care she needed after a severe heart attack that led her to the ICU.
” ‘We worked hard to take care of her,’ Johnson said.
“When her mother died last week, Johnson said she worked hard to honor her death the same way she did her life. ‘It was my mother’s funeral, not my funeral. We did the exact funeral that my mother wished, at the exact place,’ she said.
“Johnson said she and her family met with St. John Neumann’s music director, who assured them they would be able to deliver two eulogies. However, in a brief meeting with Guarnizo before the Mass, Johnson said the priest said there could only be one eulogy — that ‘this is how it is done all the time.’
“Johnson said her brother responded: ‘Well, we don’t bury our mother all the time.’
“In that meeting, Johnson said Guarnizo never offered his condolences for her mother’s passing. And when he asked Johnson’s partner who she was, she replied, ‘I’m her partner.’ “https://newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php
What makes Childs-Graham’s piece so unique is that she elicited the personal details of a story whose power has been that it has affected so many people so personally. Childs-Graham’s informative piece also highlights that, sadly, the denial of communion was not the only pastorally incompetent thing to have happened to Ms. Johnson and her family.
Saint Louis, Missouri
While Catholics were still just learning about the Maryland incident, when a story broke in Saint Louis that a Catholic school teacher had been fired because he was planning a wedding to his partner of 20 years. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reports that Michael Fischer, a music teacher at St. Ann’s Catholic school in north St. Louis county, and his partner, Charlie Robin, are to be wed in New York state on March 9th. The story further explains:
“. . . the couple’s relationship was in no way a secret at St. Ann and that Fischer was fired after a representative of the St. Louis Archdiocese overheard him talking to co-workers about his wedding plans.
“Shortly thereafter, according to Robin, Fischer was told he would be fired March 9, the couple’s 20th anniversary and the day of their planned nuptials. But after Robin posted the news of Fischer’s soon-to-come firing on Facebook on Feb. 16, Fischer was fired the next day, Robin said.”
In a poignant and insightful commentary on the incident, Robin, a practicing Catholic commented to the Post-Dispatch:
” ‘Everyone involved in this process I know is committed to good,’ he said. ‘The problem is blindly following the doctrine isn’t committed to good.’ “
What makes this case even more disturbing is that it comes so soon after a North Carolina parish music director was fired, also for marrying his long-time partner in New York. Bondings 2.0 carried news and commentary on this incident, and it can be accessed here.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s been a hard week. Is it possible to find hope in any of this? I can think of three ways:
1) Take action: We nourish our hope when we take some action for change. One reaction to negative stories is that people feel powerless to do anything about the situation. To feed our hope, we must struggle against this natural reaction.
Our job isn’t necessarily to correct the situation, but it is our responsibility to do what we can. We need to lift our voices, both in prayer and in communication with church leaders. These negative situations must become opportunities for Catholic people to let our leaders know we support LGBT people and relationships.
2) Stay Connected: Barbara Johnson and Michael Fischer, the main victims of these abusive situations have not let these abusive actions devastate them or sever their relationships with the church. The National Catholic Reporter column reports that Ms. Johnson had only praise for the priest who eventually accompanied her and her family to the cemetery, Fr. Peter Sweeney:
“He was an angel, a balm on our hearts. . . .He was everything I knew the Catholic church to be.”
She also praised the parish’s pastor, Fr. Thomas LaHood
“. . . who had come to the funeral home to provide pastoral support to the family the evening before the Mass, has been ‘wonderful and apologetic and graceful and Christ-like.’ “
“Johnson said LaHood told her, ‘I wish I could take it all back.’ “
Moreover, she plans to work toward receiving an apology from the priest and seeing that he is removed from ministry, so that no one else can be similarly hurt:
“The fact that this has resonated shows that the church is in need of healing. . . . My family will continue to urge for more awareness until this man is removed from parish life and has apologized to my family. Our mission is to make sure no other family will experience this kind of tragedy.”
Similarly in St. Louis, Michael Fischer states that he bears no animosity towards the pastor who fired him and he hopes that parents will make this incident a teaching moment for the children;
“In his letter to parents, Fischer wrote: ‘I think the word has been well spread that this is not the fault of St. Ann School or its leadership, and I want to emphasize that I get that, too.’ It added that the school’s principal and the parish priest ‘are still there for me in a big way.’
“The letter encouraged parents to talk to their children. ‘A family conversation about whether or not justice was served here could be a great thing,’ it read. ‘I do not want the lesson from this for the kids to be, “Keep your mouth shut, hide who you are or what you think if it will get you in trouble.” ‘ “
3) Share your thoughts and feelings: We nourish hope when we share our thoughts and feelings with others. As always, you are invited to do so here in the “Comments” section. Expressing your reactions, and reading how others have expressed their reactions, can sometimes help to heal any pain we may feel.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry