If anyone wants a lesson in sacramental reverence and church faithfulness, no need to look further than the gay couple in Montana who were denied communion at their local parish in September. You can read about that terrible action by local church officials by clicking here, and read follow-up posts here and here. The respect for the sacramental life of the Church in the Montana story is in stark comparison to a recently demoted Cardinal who would use the Eucharist as a weapon or reward.
This week, Helena, Montana’s Independent Record newspaper interviewed Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff who had been active parishioners at St. Leo the Great parish, Lewistown, for 11 years before their pastor told them that they could not receive communion because they were legally married.
The newspaper article recounts some of the impact that the denial has had, and that one of the husbands continues to attend part of Mass each Sunday at the parish:
“Wojtowick and Huff were willing to write a restoration statement that, in part, would support the concept of marriage in the Catholic faith as between a man and a woman. But they refused the more drastic action of permanent separation.
“Huff has left St. Leo and attends St. James Episcopal Church. A number of other former parishioners departed St. Leo’s for the Episcopal church, Wojtowick said.
“Wojtowick attends half the Mass at St. Leo’s on Saturday nights, leaving after the homily, before the Eucharist is served. On Sundays, he often joins Huff at St. James, where he is frequently asked to play piano.
“Huff has said that he won’t return to St. Leo’s unless the ban is reversed. Others wonder why Wojtowick hasn’t taken that step.
“ ‘A lot of people said, “Why don’t you just give up on it?” ‘ he said in a telephone interview. ‘Boy, it’s hard. I invested so much time there, worked with hundreds of people.’
“His family also has been part of the parish for seven generations, dating back to the early 1900s. Both Wojtowick and Huff are lifelong Catholics.”
Not denying that it must be difficult for them both, I admire Wojtowick’s patience and persistence in claiming his rightful place in his local parish. His witness attests to the fact that the laity are the stronghold of the Church, and that even despicable actions against them by ill-advised clergy will not keep them from claiming their sense of belonging.
Although Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings diocese met with St. Leo parishioners in September, he has yet to meet with the couple. But Wojtowick has been persistent:
“In mid-October, Wojtowick, himself a former priest, wrote a lengthy, in-depth piece he titled ‘The Warfel Solution — A Failure to Dialogue.’ He submitted the paper to Warfel.
“In it, Wojtowick maintains that the action Spiering took against the couple regarding divorce and separation, and which Warfel apparently upheld, is unprecedented anywhere else in the United States.
“Wojtowick got a letter from the bishop, who said he perused what Wojtowick had written, and plans to read it. The bishop also offered for the two to sit down for coffee the next time he comes through Lewistown, Wojtowick said.
“ ‘What’s odd to me is the censure comes from Father Spiering [pastor] at St. Leo’s, but the bishop hasn’t acted on it, he hasn’t changed it,’ he said. ‘I never heard anything formal.’ ”
Such persistence speaks of love of the Church and the Eucharist, which in itself, should be evidence enough to have the couple welcomed back to the communion table.
Contrast this attitude toward the Eucharist with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Vatican official who was recently demoted from head of the Church’s highest court to a ceremonial position as patron of the Knights of Malta. PinkNews.co.uk reported that Burke remarked to Irish television that communion should be denied to pro-marriage equality politicians:
“Speaking to RTE in Ireland, Burke refused to comment on his demotion, and also would not talk about the upcoming referendum on equal marriage in the country.
“However, he did say he would refuse to give communion to any legislators who voted in favour of equality.
“He said he would have ‘issues giving holy communion’ to Catholic legislators who backed gay rights against church doctrine.”
To me there is a wide chasm between Wojtowick’s respect for the Eucharist, which keeps him going to church even though he is denied full participation, and Burke’s use of the Eucharist as a weapon to intimidate politicians or as a reward for only those he deems politically correct.
Commonweal magazine’s most recent editorial focuses on Burke’s ultra conservative stance, but argues that he should be allowed to continue taking part in church debate about marriage, family, and sexuality which began at this past month’s synod. But, the editor’s, while championing free debate, are not shy about pointing out the errors in Burke’s way of thinking:
“Yet Burke sets the wrong course for the church by insisting that the questions taken up in the synod were settled centuries ago and need never be revisited. His fear of foisting ‘confusion’ on the faithful is misplaced, especially his claim that no good can come from what the church has traditionally taught are disordered and gravely sinful acts and relationships. That gets the contemporary moral dilemma backwards. Given what the church teaches, what is perplexing for the faithful is the goodness evident in the lives of many divorced and remarried Catholics. Much virtue is also apparent in the loving relationships of same-sex couples, especially in their devotion to their children. Goodness, after all, is properly understood as a grace and a mystery. What is confounding is finding it in places where the church—or at least Cardinal Burke—claims it cannot exist.
“Burke will now have more free time to challenge those who think it imperative that the church reconsider the status of the divorced and remarried as well as the nature of homosexuality. And he should. These are not questions that demand a rush to judgment. But if the cardinal wants to be credible, he should refrain from pretending that all church doctrine was cast in stone two millennia ago. The moral questions Catholics face today are as real and as difficult as those faced by the apostles; pat answers did not work then, and will not work now. ‘We shall find ourselves unable to fix an historical point at which the growth of doctrine ceased, and the rule of faith was once and for all settled,’ Cardinal Newman wrote. Bishops should deepen, not simplify, our understanding as well as our faith. Change need not be betrayal.”
For Catholics, communion is the center of our lives. It is what unites us as one body, despite our many differences and disagreements. While we debate and discuss matters of personal and public concern, we should never lose sight of our unity as brothers and sisters. Making the Eucharist a system of rewards and penalties destroys such important unity.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry