LGBTQ Catholic Once Denied Communion Now Speaks Out About Leaving Church

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

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

7 replies
  1. peter
    peter says:

    “….she and her wife continued to receive requests for donations through parish contribution envelopes sent to their home.”

    The experience of the catholic church for too many LGBT persons around the world is that there is little REAL care for our lives. In fact the catholic church (and others, to be fair) perpetrates and fuels all manner of insult, discrimination, hate and violence against us and still they feel entitled to our resources, labour, goodwill, love?

    Reply
  2. Scott
    Scott says:

    This story unfortunately only confirms my recent decision not to pursue membership in the catholic church. For several months now I have been struggling with reconciling my identity as a gay man with the teachings of the church, choosing to focus on all the positive qualities I could see and the beauty of the worship and devotionals. I had tentatively planned to start RCIA classes this fall. That is no longer an option for me. This story confirms my reservations, and I have decided that I cannot pursue membership in a church that only marginally accepts me. I have decided to return to the Episcopal church where there is no question that I am welcomed and affirmed. I feel as if a great weight has been lifted as I let go of the mental gymnastics I was performing to justify my efforts to join the catholic church. If there is ever any true change in their position on LGBTQ people in my lifetime (and I’m 60, so not holding my breath!) then perhaps I could reconsider. Such a shame that the church will never know how much love and devotion they are turning away.

    Reply
  3. Don
    Don says:

    As a deacon in the Catholic Church and as a facilitator of “One Heart” our LGBT ministry at my parish, I can honestly say that not every priest has an axe to grind against members of the LGBT community. I will say there are a fair number who do and they seem to be the “squeaky wheel” in this equation, but I have found many priests in my area (Southern California) who are open and accepting of the LGBT community. In my parish we have many LGBT people in ministry: in choir, in faith formation and in our Religious Education program.

    The number of letters Ms. Smolenski has received should be a testament to the “voice of the faithful” working within the church to affect change. It is very hard to overcome the personal prejudice and ignorance of people in power, especially when you add a dollop of clericalism to the equation, but I think it can happen, through an outpouring of love similar to what she has received. We may never be able to change this priest’s mind, but maybe the next one will be more open minded. Maybe the next bishop will be a little more liberal. But it takes a rock being thrown in a puddle to produce the ripples and I would urge Ms. Smolenski to find a parish in her area where she would feel more comfortable.

    Reply
  4. Loras Michel
    Loras Michel says:

    Pope Francis has said: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” That includes all of us who are Baptized. Such selective discrimination around the sacraments as you have experienced does not reflect the love and mercy of Jesus. As a fellow Baptized Catholic, we are all wounded by unjust treatment of any of our members by anyone who does not really know what they are doing. You are always the ocean in its very substance, and no storm or threatening wave can deny you that rightful place. Much peace and contentment on your journey.

    .

    Reply
  5. Michaelangelo Allocca
    Michaelangelo Allocca says:

    The most grimly ironic detail in this sad saga is the people believing there was the slightest chance they would get a just and compassionate response from Vigneron.

    Reply
  6. Laura Okazaki
    Laura Okazaki says:

    I feel very sad reading this article but glad that New Ways Ministry is reporting this. The Holy Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood and depriving someone of this precious Gift is to only incomprehensible but a tremendous lack of love. I hope she will feel she can come back to the Church and receive communion again some time in the future. Jesus was never exclusive but came to save us all.

    Reply

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