While religious conservatives are predicting that they will become victims of imagined dire violations against religious freedom in the wake of the Supreme Court marriage equality decision, it seems the real victims which are piling up are LGBT people.
After over a week of terrible news concerning the firing of married lesbian teacher Margie Winters from a Philadelphia Catholic school, a new story out of Louisiana about a communion denial seems to indicate that much more education work needs to be done with Catholic clergy on pastorally responding to married gay and lesbian people. Baton Rouge’s Advocate newspaper reported this news out of Louisiana:
“Tim Ardillo said he was standing next to his mother’s coffin leading his young son to receive a blessing when the priest presiding over the funeral Mass denied him communion.“The longtime Catholic said the priest told him it was because he married outside the church, but Ardillo doesn’t think that’s the whole story.
“He believes he was denied the sacrament because, as is stated in his mother’s obituary, he is married to a man.”
This is the fifth known case in recent years of gay and lesbian people being denied communion. It is the third case where the denial occurred at the funeral of a parent. (See links to previous stories at end of this post.)
The priest, Father Mark Beard of St.Helena Church, in the town of Amite, did not return the reporter’s phone calls to comment, but the Diocese of Baton Rouge, where the parish is located, issued an apology to Ardillo, which was also followed up by a personal apology from Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the neighboring Archdiocese of New Orleans. [Editor’s note: In my search for a copy of the apology which I thought might be on the archdiocese’s website, but was not, I found a page of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about LGBT issues and the Church which provides some of the most sensitive and pastoral explanations about these issues that I have found from an official Catholic Church source. Click here to read it. The homepage of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ LGBT ministry can be found here. ]
The denial at the funeral did not end there, though. The Advocate reported:
“Ardillo said the church passed out a quotation from 1 Corinthians at Mass the next Sunday, which states, in a portion highlighted in red ink, ‘Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks in judgment of himself.’ “
The Diocese of Baton Rouge clearly sees the pastor’s behavior as wrong, from the way they explained regulations about communion reception:
” ‘With respect to the specific matter raised, the Catholic Church expects that any individual Catholic who is in a marital situation which is not in conformity with its doctrines will not come forward to receive the body and blood of the Lord at Mass. For Catholics, reception of Holy Communion among other things is an expression of unity with the church’s teachings, including those about marriage,’ the diocese wrote in a statement.
“Diocese spokeswoman Donna Carville, a Eucharistic minister, said the diocese does not condone denial of communion to Catholics just because they are gay.”
Carville echoed Pope Francis’ famous phrase in her explanation:
” ‘That’s very surprising that he was denied communion. That just doesn’t happen. … We don’t deny people communion,’ she said. ‘Who are we to judge whether they believe (the church’s teachings on the communion) or not? It’s between you and God.’ “
The news story also quoted a canon law expert on the topic, who agreed with the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s assessment, and also disputed Father Beard’s incorrect explanation of why he denied communion:
“Being married outside the church should not be used to deny someone the Eucharist, said the Rev. Roger Keeler, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America.
“As a practical matter, Keeler noted that a priest or Eucharistic minister can’t possibly know the marital standing of everybody in line. He also raised more philosophical concerns.
” ‘This is not a weapon. Communion is not a reward for good behavior,’ he said. ‘It’s the food for weary souls.”
So there is good news and bad news that arises from this terrible incident. The good news is that we hope the publicity this story receives, including the instructions on communion reception from the Diocese of Baton Rouge and the canon law expert, will educate pastors not to repeat such an egregious act again. There’s no place in the Church for such pastoral insensitivity. Especially at funerals, which may be an occasion for people to reconnect with their faith or experience in a deeper way, such denials are not only insensitive, but downright spiritually harmful.
The bad news, however, is that for Tim Ardillo, who had prayed intimately with his mother in the period leading up to her death, this action was spiritually devestating. The news story stated of him:
” ‘He said he still believes in the Catholic faith but isn’t sure of his ‘place’ in the church.
“Toward the end of his mother’s life, the two would pray together; she signed the cross on her leg when she couldn’t lift her hands higher. They prayed the rosary together the last time they saw each other, Ardillo said.
“He had thought the funeral would serve as a reintroduction into the Catholic community, but not anymore.
” ‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I don’t have it in me.’ “
We can only pray that the Spirit will find the way and the means to heal this additional hurt which he experienced, and that he will find peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation in his heart.
Let us pray, too, that this will never, never, happen again.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Bondings 2.0 past posts about communion denials to lesbian and gay people:
February 28, 2012: “Communion Denied to Lesbian Woman at Her Mother’s Funeral”
August 9, 2013: “Rhode Island Gay Couple Denied Communion at Parish”
February 1, 2014: “Missouri Lesbian Couple Denied Communion at Mother’s Funeral”
September 23, 2014: “Montana Bishop’s Divided Thinking in Communion Denial Case”