Community Supports Lesbian Judge Denied Communion with Inclusive Liturgy, Letter to Bishop

Judge Sara Smolenski, center, receiving Communion at a Methodist church’s inclusive liturgy

Local community members are making their support known for a lesbian Catholic denied Communion over her same-gender marriage, including with an inclusive liturgy and one parishioner’s letter to the local bishop.

Responding to Fr. Scott Nolan’s denial of Communion to Judge Sara Smolenski, a nearby Methodist church hosted an inclusive Sunday liturgy with a special invite to Smolenski and her wife, Linda. WOOD reported:

“The church says while they welcome everyone to their church during regular monthly Communion services, their message is more intentional during inclusive services.

“‘I am so full of gratitude that these ministers, their congregation, has reached out to open this up and do what Jesus would do,’ Smolenski said.

“The service started with welcoming words, then moved on to prayer.  They say their church has a long history of embracing everyone and supporting social justice issues.

“‘We wanted to invite and sort of have a heart for every LGBT person that’s been harmed by the church,’ Rev. Dr. Joan VanDessel said. ‘I’m a part of the (LGBTQ) community too, so for me, it’s knowing that experience of being harmed or not having access to the church. I think we wanted to reach out and be a different voice.'”

Smolenski said that her future at St. Stephen Catholic Church, where the judge has been a lifelong parishioner and where Nolan is now pastor, is unclear. But the issue at hand is, in Smolenski’s words, “really about saying Jesus wants everybody welcome at the table.”

The controversy became public when Nolan told Smolenski she would be denied Communion over her marriage. But parishioners report that another same-gender couple had unexpectedly been denied the Eucharist at their child’s First Communion. There are also reports that gay teachers had been fired, other teachers had left in protest, and that a message had been sent to LGBTQ people they were not welcome. Despite falling church attendance and decreased school enrollment, Nolan defended his actions and is backed by the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

One St. Stephen parishioner, Joshua David Marko, shared his perspective about the Communion controversy in a letter to Grand Rapid’s Bishop David Walkowiak, along with the metropolitan of the region, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and Pope Francis.

Posted on Medium, Marko said that he had never been “so discouraged in my faith” as a lifelong and involved Catholic. He wrote the letter because he believes the multiple denials of Communion to LGBTQ people are an “inconsistent application of Church teaching” and are “poor pastoral practice.” Marko continued:

“My community has been working since last winter to respectfully address our concerns through outreach to Fr. Scott and yourself while making every attempt to keep the crisis out of the hands of the media. It is so very frustrating to receive an indignant bump on the snout from the Diocese after receiving nothing but disregard to all our previous attempts at dialogue.

“A consequence of the Diocese’s response is that it emboldened a hateful response from ultra conservative Catholics. I was in disbelief seeing the anger poured onto members of my community by people who I would have presumed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. My community is experiencing a crisis. Instead of supportive outreach we were attacked by people waving a war banner stitched from your words. These people invaded the Mass at my church to celebrate the pain of my community with theatrical genuflections to receive the Eucharist. It was disgusting to see Communion used as a bludgeon to exacerbate conflict when that is the antithesis of its meaning. Yet this abuse is not just tolerated but encouraged by your words.”

Marko concluded with a fitting appeal to the bishop for positive action that leads to reconciliation:

“Censorship of these issues damages trust in the Church. Will discussion among the discouraged and dispossessed continue to be driven underground? Or, will you choose to have a voice within that group that offers support and hope? I appeal to you, Bishop Walkowiak, to be thoughtfully compassionate in how you engage with all members of the Church in order to bring the community closer together rather than to widen divisions and continue to drive life-long Catholics away from the Church. This will be needed in 2020 more than ever.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 6, 2019 

8 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    This young priest , Scott Nolan, is in over his head. Maybe he studied well and performed in the prescribed manner while in seminary , but he does not see the big picture. Let’s hope this is another learning experience. This really is the school of hard knocks. And he certainly deserves it.

  2. Don E Siegal
    Don E Siegal says:

    Inclusive Liturgy

    This is a bittersweet story of exclusion and inclusion. I’m curious, what roll will our brothers and sisters in other Christian communions play in the reconciliation of the queer community in our Catholic Church? I’d like to hear what our other contributors have to say on that question.

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    What’s really needed here is a strong clarifying statement from Pope Francis himself. Are heterosexual Catholics who are civilly and legally married fully eligible to participate in the Eucharist? If the answer is yes, then the very same permissions need to apply to gay Catholics who are also civilly and legally married. Anything less than equal treatment for both groups is nothing but hateful bigotry.

    • Don E Siegal
      Don E Siegal says:

      I can answer that question for the Dioceses of Fresno CA. Straight couples who divorce and remarry without an annulment are denied the Eucharist and all other sacraments as including reconciliation and anointing of the sick. In addition, they cannot serve in any lay role in the mass such as reader, eucharistic minister, bringing up the gifts, etc. As I wrote in this original story comments, both our queer community who marry civilly and our straight community who divorce and remarry civilly will have to await changes in Church teaching on marriage and the family before anything is going to resolved for both communities. The that rests solely in the lap of Pope Francis.

  4. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo says:

    Yep, some good community will step up and welcome this wonderful couple. Kudos to the Methodists here! The RCC continues to bleed. But it will be, as Pope Benedict desired, a smaller more obedient church eventually!

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I was taught and believe for myself that receiving the Eucharist is the ultimate nourishment of my or anyone’s soul. Why do the majority of bishops and some priests have so little faith in God’s love that they think He would be offended if received by only a select certified group? None of Jesus’ contacts with humans were exclusive. “Come to me always” is not a limiting statement. God will judge us for how we tried to reflect His image, not how many others we could keep from Him.

    To Don,
    As a practicing Catholic (Dignity/Washington, DC) in a relationship with a Baptist in an accepting congregation my experience is that the Protestants ignore the Catholic stance on any statements regarding sexual matters. On other matters Pope Francis is periodically quoted, but not on sexual matters. There is no communication just as there is no real ecumminical movement on the part of the Catholic church at any functional level.

  6. Francis McGarry
    Francis McGarry says:

    3 yrs ago , 3days after the PULSE Incident in Florida, I was litterly picked up and carried out of MASS for begging to receive The Holy EUCHARIST, and turned over to the POLICE . The Police officer said , You (I )did nothing wrong . I thanked him and said, ” That’s just what Pontius Pilate first said of my Lord Jesus CHRIST !🤨

  7. Greg
    Greg says:

    It is so tiring to hear once again of the ignorance and the mean spirited behaviour of yet another priest. To use the Eucharist as a weapon is a grievous sin. It is much akin to denying the Real Presence, because anyone who believes that the Eucharist IS Jesus would never use the Body of Christ to hurt, embarrass, or alienate another believer. Shame on Nolan and any who show such disrespect for the Eucharist and the people of God.

    As a priest I am embarrassed by and ashamed of Scott Nolan and his mean spirited actions. To be a pastor is to shepherd. The good shepherd doesn’t abandon his sheep or throw them to the wolves.
    He loves, protects, nourishes, and leads those he has been given by God to care for.


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