A diocese in Michigan is backing one priest’s decision to deny Communion to a longtime lesbian parishioner because of her same-gender marriage, part of an alleged pattern of the priest discriminating against LGBTQ Catholics.
Sara Smolenski was denied Communion by the pastor of the parish, St. Stephen Church, East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which she has attended on and off since being baptized there as a child. WOOD 8 reported:
“But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.
“‘The way he said it was “because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,” that’s how he said it,’ Smolenski explained. ‘I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.’
“It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.
“‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,’ Smolenski said, fighting back tears. ‘I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.’
“Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.
“‘The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,’ Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.”
Smolenski, a District Court judge who has served on the judicial bench for almost three decades, said she told the media about the denial and the priest’s behavior as a way to make other people’s lives “a little bit easier.” It was simply a matter of speaking the truth, she stated.
Parishioners are pushing back against Nolan’s behavior. Micki Benz, a parishioner at St. Stephen for forty years, shared that the priest had fired gay teachers at the parish school and “made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” in addition to excluding non-Catholics from church services. Concerned, parishioners drafted a letter to their community encouraging people to write the local bishop, Grand Rapid’s Bishop David Walkowiak, as well as the local metropolitan, Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigneron, about Nolan. The letter reads, in part:
“The St. Stephen community is experiencing a crisis of leadership involving selective discrimination against gay parishioners. . . .[Denying Communion to Smolenski] by Fr. Scott is a clear indication that he will continue to practice selective discrimination against members of our community. These acts have been destructive to the culture of inclusion and diversity that are hallmarks of St Stephen. There has been a massive decline in school enrollment, and an exodus of teachers and staff. Many individuals have withdrawn financial support from the parish and Diocese, and transferred those funds to support to the St. Stephen school or other causes.”
But the young priest and the Diocese of Grand Rapids are defending the denial of Communion to Smolenski. Nolan told WOOD 8 that he disagrees with accusations that he has been discriminatory, citing Bishop Walkowiak’s support and the teachings of Pope Francis as evidence he acted rightly. Nolan added he was the “right person” to lead the parish, while also acknowledging a sharp decline in parish and school enrollment. For its part, the diocese released a statement affirming the priest’s decision to deny Communion to a married lesbian woman.
Reports of Fr. Nolan’s behavior are troubling. Pastors should be unifiers and reconcilers, not sources of division. Denying Communion once because of a person’s sexual orientation and marital status in itself grounds enough to question whether the priest should be kept in ministry. But the alleged pattern of discrimination this priest has carried out against LGBTQ people demands intervention by church leaders before any more harm is done.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2019