A Catholic judge who was denied communion because of her marriage to a woman has disclosed that she has left the Catholic Church.
In November 2019, Sara Smolenski was told by Fr. Scott Nolan of St. Stephen’s Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, that she would no longer be welcome to receive communion at her parish. Although she received an outpouring of community support, the judge told reporters at the Michigan Advance that she’s not sure where she will attend church in the future:
“For months, I was so sad…I’m still very sad about it. I stopped going to St. Stephen’s because it made me feel too sad. Then I became angry. Now I think I’m past the anger because I know that’s not how all priests feel.”
One particular painful aspect of Smolenski’s story is that St. Stephen’s is her childhood church, where she was raised and baptized. “I grew up in that church,” she said. “It helped me form my faith. I never had a priest tell me I wasn’t welcome or could not be part of the church because I was gay.”
Never, that is, until Fr. Nolan called her shortly before Thanksgiving 2019, and said she could no longer receive the sacrament. She said that the fall felt like “being invited to someone’s house for dinner, but you can’t eat the food.”
There were mixed reactions from Smolenski’s fellow parishioners, along with a great outpouring of support from people around the country and the world. One strong group of parishioners wrote an open letter to Grand Rapids’ Bishop David Walkowiak and Detroit’s Archbishop Allen Vigernon, saying that St. Stephen’s was “experiencing a crisis of leadership involving selective discrimination against gay parishoners.” These supporters called Nolan’s actions “destructive to the culture of inclusion and diversity” at St. Stephen’s. Other parishioners stayed silent, and Smolenski reports that she and her wife continued to receive requests for donations through parish contribution envelopes sent to their home.
As her story spread, Smolenski received encouraging messages from sympathizers near and far. She tells the Michigan Advance:
“A man named Angus from Ireland wrote me a letter telling me I was welcome to his village’s Catholic church anytime…I kept a notebook full of hundreds of notes, emails and handwritten letters of support. They were so powerful.”
“It’s not perfect,” she says, of the church as an institution, noting that she too is ‘not perfect.’ But “when that priest told me I couldn’t have communion, I really felt like I knew what discrimination meant. It becomes personal when someone says you aren’t welcome.” Still, she knows there is nothing about her that deserves such biased treatment. “I’m not ashamed of who I am; I’m proud. Jesus doesn’t make mistakes, so none of us were born as mistakes.”
Beyond LGBTQ+ discrimination, she also notes issues of race and prejudice in many facets of church and US society:
“We have to use our voice, especially white people, because that’s how change is going to happen with any form of discrimination. We need to do what is right and I don’t think that’s what the Catholic church is doing.”
Selective discrimination around the sacraments is a destructive act which will continue to drive LGBTQ+ Catholics and allies, as well as many other people, away from the church. Officials in Grand Rapids and elsewhere should take note of Smolenski’s story and work towards justice and restitution.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 24, 2020