A transgender Catholic was denied Communion earlier this month, but the diocese has claimed it was not the communicant’s gender identity at issue but the person’s gum chewing during Mass.
Maxine Arbelo, a transgender teen who began transitioning in January, was denied Communion this month while celebrating Mass at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Charlotte, North Carolina. Why the denial happened is being disputed, reported The Charlotte Observer:
“Her mother [Lilliana Redd] believes it was because Max, who was wearing makeup and a pink top, identifies as a girl. She’s been transitioning since January, taking hormone pills and seeing a psychologist. . .
“Redd, who lives with her daughter and son in Indian Land, S.C., said she was ‘surprised and upset’ when Max was denied Communion at the Charlotte church. So much so that she went to see the priest and the Eucharistic minister after the Mass. Your daughter is living in sin, she said she was told.
“‘At first, they said it was because she was chewing gum,’ said Redd, a lifelong Catholic who emigrated to the United States from Costa Rica 19 years ago. ‘But I know that is not the reason because (they) admitted that it was because they and everybody can see Max’s ‘sin’ on the outside … because of the way she dresses and everything.'”
Describing the incident, Arbelo said she was “embarrassed,” “humiliated,” and “shocked” when a lay Eucharistic minister denied her the sacrament. She said she believes her gender identity was the underlying reason.
But the Diocese of Charlotte rejected claims that the dispute happened because of Arbelo’s gender identity. Spokesperson David Hains, referencing his conversation with the priest who celebrated Mass, Fr. Santiago Mariani, said it was Arbelo’s gum chewing that was at issue because it broke the pre-Communion fast:
“Max being transgender ‘had nothing to do with withholding Communion,’ Hains said. He said the Eucharistic minister, a layman who had volunteered to help distribute Communion, ‘didn’t realize the child was transgender. He thought it was a girl.'”
Hains added that when Redd, Arbelo, and Mariani met, the priest told them Church teaches against “transgenderism” but denied saying Arbelo was living in sin, as her mother claimed. The spokesperson was clear that Catholic teaching does not support denying Communion to someone simply because they are transgender.
Thankfully, Redd and Arbelo have found a more welcoming parish in Charlotte and are committed to remaining in the Church. Redd commented:
“‘When I see them deny Jesus’ body to my daughter, that upsets me. . .(But) I want to send a message to all the mothers that have kids like Max: Don’t stop taking the kids to church. … There’s always another Catholic church, another priest. … (And) God is not about gender. God is about your heart and what you believe.'”
Arbelo added, “God accepts everyone. . .I don’t think it matters what’s on the outside. It matters what’s inside and how your treat people …and serve (God).”
The specifics of this incident make it a complicated issue. The fact is that a young Catholic who seems committed to her faith was denied Communion, a tragic act whatever the underlying reason might be. But there can only be speculation about what the lay minister and priest’s intentions were, and whether Arbelo’s gender identity came into play. It should be noted there have been repeated anti-LGBT actions in the diocese.
Denying Communion is a devastating act. The lay minister involved seems to be overzealous in restricting access to the sacrament, which Pope Francis has said is not a prize for the perfect. Chewing gum during Mass is impolite, but it is most certainly not a grave enough matter to justify what happened. Officials in Charlotte should use this painful incident to review how well they are training Eucharistic ministers, clergy and lay alike. They should also ask themselves whether policies on Communion distribution foremost respect the primacy of conscience and are guided by the merciful approach of Pope Francis. Finally, they should consider what kind of pastoral welcome and support is being offered to transgender Catholics and their families.
But first, Bishop Peter Jugis, Fr. Mariani, and the lay minister involved owe a deep apology to Max Arbelo and her mother. Whatever the reason, what happened in Charlotte this month was not pastoral.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 27, 2018