Blessed are they who mourn?

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” –Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:4. Imagine, … Continued

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” –Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount,
Matthew 5:4.

Imagine, for just a moment, being in the midst of the shock and grief of losing your mother and turning to your church for the comfort of the familiar rituals and sacraments associated with death and burial. As you approach the priest for Communion, he unexpectedly withholds the Host and tells you, right there in the Communion line he will not give you the Sacrament because of who you love. Shaken, you return to your pew, and when you muster the strength to rise to deliver your mother’s eulogy, the priest walks off the altar, returning only when you have finished. Then, as the mourners head to the burial site, you are told the priest will not accompany your family to say the final prayers and conclude the rite. Instead of reassuring you in your time of mourning, your church shunned and rejected you, leaving you feeling even more alone.

This is exactly what happened recently to a woman by the name of Barbara Johnson and to her family when their mother’s funeral Mass was held at the Saint John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Father Marcel Guarnizo told Ms. Johnson he heard just before the funeral that she was romantically involved with another woman, and saw her relationship as grounds to deny her Communion, refuse to even be present during her grief-stricken eulogy, and leave the entire family scrambling for a way to conclude their mother’s funeral rites.

It is hard to imagine a more heart-wrenching failure on the part of our church.

Marvin Joseph


Barbara Johnson was denied communion and the priest walked out on her mother’s funeral last Saturday after he found out Johnson was a lesbian. Johnson is photographed outside her home in Washington, D.C. on February 28, 2012.

The reality is that this could happen to almost any one of us, given the escalating conflicts between pastoral care and the demand for adherence to a handful of socially conservative aspects of doctrine being played out in Catholic churches across the country. Whether we Catholics use birth control, have remarried after a divorce, believe that women are qualified for official ministry, or support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, most of us hold several views that contradict official Roman Catholic teaching. Could any of us be the next Barbara Johnson?

Recently, U.S. bishops have claimed loudly that our church is under siege from public forces that would deny Catholics the ability to practice our faith as we believe we should. In reality, it is far more often church leaders who deny Catholics the opportunity to live out our faith. It is the bishops who instruct priests to read statements opposing access to sometimes life-saving contraception from the pulpit, or who insert prayers that denounce same-sex couples and those who love and support them into Mass. It is church leaders who ban politicians with contrary views from Communion or from addressing college students. There is no external force firing beloved church workers who dare to raise questions for discussion, or who expel the children of lesbian and gay children from Catholic schools.

National studies have shown that one-third of all adults who were raised Catholic have left the church. These people were not forced out by acts of Congress or the decisions of the courts. Most have left because they no longer find our church to be a place of spiritual nourishment or credible moral guidance. And this is tragic. With each departure, our church is diminished. We lose the gifts and talents, love and hopes, challenges and insights that person represents. We lose a little bit of divine light.

I love our church, and agree with our leaders that it is facing a potentially devastating crisis. However, it seems as if the threat is not that the church will succumb to any external attack, but rather that it will tear itself apart, by continuing to tell Catholics that we are not welcome.

In the Catholic faith, the Communion table represents the Great Feast left to us by Jesus Christ, and is the place where we pray for the unity of the church. The tragedy of Barbara Johnson’s exclusion from the table at a moment she most needed the community of faith provides a wake-up call to Catholics, laity and leadership alike. As a way of atoning for this sin of omission, let us find ways to come together. We may never all agree on some issues, but we share a faith and a commitment to the ongoing mission and ministry of Jesus. This should compel us to imagine and live into a church where all are truly welcome.

Marianne Duddy Burke is executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics .

  • tz12341

    So let me see ..Jesus gave the Church the ability to make His body and blood present through the Eucharist…but no ability to teach the truth. Got it. Why don’t you stop trying to re-make the church in your image and just admit the truth.

  • lanthonyprice

    As the Archbishop of Washington reiterated in the original reported story, it is against diocesan policy to deny anyone who presents himself or herself for Communion. There is no agreement among bishops to deny Communion to Catholics who present themselves, even if their views are counter to Church teaching.

    The Church today welcomes diversity even as it struggles to embrace it. All one has to do is listen to or read Cardinal Dolan’s homilies and addresses to understand that. He represents the U.S. Catholic Church. As the Johnsons said to the reporter who filed the story, this is not a comment on the Church but a sad comment on an individual priest. It shouldn’t be turned into an opportunity to Church-bash. This priest was wrong. Horribly wrong. When Ms. Johnson presented herself for Communion she should have been served.

    The majority of Catholics – heterosexual or homosexual – who read that story should be outraged by what one errant priest did at a time when a Catholic needed the comfort and grace of the Eucharist the most. Shame on him, not shame on us.

  • tjlm

    tz12341 —

    “and just admit the truth”

    and just what “truth” would that be? That Jesus preached hatred for some of God’s creation? That Jesus preached a litmus test other than faith in Him? That Jesus preached an all-male hierarchy that excluded women? That Jesus preached burning at the stake anyone who didn’t agree with Him? The Church has much to answer for (while taking credit for the likes of Francis de Sales, Francis of Assisi, and Mother Theresa). Compassion at a funeral is the least it can offer. And, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo’s actions apparently have been disowned by the Archbishop’s spokesman as being against “policy” (God save us all, what a horribly dry, twisted, bureaucratic, inept way to say the guy screwed up!)

    What, again, was the “truth” you had in mind?

  • usapdx

    How does the one that give communion know that the receiver is in MORTAL sin? The person’s conscience determents what is sin and or what degree of sin Also on a different subject of government matters in our country, the supreme law is the Constitution, not any thing else.

  • clevelandjake

    So the Church should be what you, Marianne, want it to be? The church should alter historical and biblical principles to coincide with what is acceptable in today’s society? Should everyone get to dictate their personal beliefs through Church doctrine? While your story does much to conjure up emotion and feeling, it also shows your deep misunderstanding of the Church itself. I was struck by one comment, outside of the main content of the article, which says that “It is the bishops who instruct priests to read statements opposing access to sometimes life-saving contraception from the pulpit…” Yes, the church does prohibit contraception use for good reason (please do your research and read Humanae Vitae), but it also ALLOWS contraceptive use if it is for dire health reasons. A comment like this truly should tell your readers that you do not understand, or even want to understand, the Church’s positions on these issues and why they have held these various stances for hundreds and hundreds of years. I won’t say that the actions of this particular priest were correct (a third party story should have everyone wanting to go to the source), but I will say that I believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches. I don’t pick and choose what fits best for me. Being a Catholic Christian means COMPLETELY dying to ourselves and our wants and desires to make Christ more and more evident in our own lives.

  • PhilyJimi

    Thank goodness, religion is optional. If you choose to live your life this way that is fine. I don’t have a clue as to why you would want to do it?

    I was raised catholic but after the scandal I couldn’t support a religion that from the top levels down choose to cover up unimaginable criminal activity against children. (btw mostly gay activity if your following along) If I am attempting to live a moral life I could no longer call myself a catholic. I really don’t know how anyone could if they were honest with their selves.

    If you look at other church policies, like the church’s anti-condom teaching policies could of killed million in Africa via AIDS (which I believe they may of recently reversed – too bad millions may of died). I have tried but don’t see anything moral or good about the catholic church that actually requires or needs the catholic church. The good Catholics I know are just good people in spite of the criminal organization they choose or were taught as children to support. That could be said of all religions, good people don’t need religion to be good. Bad people certainly hide behind religion to do very bad things.

  • PhilyJimi

    They know because they have plenty of priests in their ranks that have committed the most immoral of sins. They are the experts at knowing how and what committing a mortal sin is.

    Since they are such a large religion and politicians never want to raise the ire of such a large voting block they have cheated even the secular laws of this country for decades. If the same exact things happened in just one mosque angry lynch mobs would of been on war path.

    There are good people in the catholic church that I wish would just wake up, look around and denounce this criminal organization. It is like saying Hitler was a good person and did good things when you look past the thing he did with the Jews and invading a few countries. If you believe you’ll be judged for the actions you have taken in your life, supporting a organization that openly covered up unimaginable and unspeakable sins against children may punch a ticket to a place you don’t want to go to.

  • muusk

    ClevelandJake, the local Arlington Cathoic Herald (published by the Catholic diocese) had a q&a last year about the pope’s remarks on certain circumstances when condoms might be used. One of the questions was whether, in a case where a woman had a serious medical problem and a doctor told her that a pregnancy would most likely kill her, it would be permissible to use condoms or another form of birth control? The answer given was absolutely not. In no circumstances was birth control to be used if the intent was to prevent pregnancy, even if that pregnancy would likely result in death for both mother and child. In my own circle, a friend who was undergoing cancer treatment which involved thalidomide was told that she must prove that she was using birth control throughout the treatment. She worked for a diocesan school so her initial prescription was rejected, but, even after appeals, the health insurance turned them down, saying that they were not allowed by the agreement to cover any drug whose intent was to prevent conception or birth. She consulted with her pastor, and even he told her that using the contraception would be sinful and her only recourse was to abstain from marital relations, even though that did not satisfy the requirements of her medical trial. In the end, she paid for the birth control out of her own pocket in order to receive the treatment. These are the real situations we are dealing with. So, no, at least in the Arlington diocese, the church does not permit the use of contraception even for “dire health reasons.”

  • muusk

    Also, ClevelandJake, Marianne has a Master’s degree in Catholic theology and has spent her entire life and career involved with the Church and its teachings. She is extremely well qualified and knowledgeable. I’m sure she will respond to your accusations of her “misunderstanding” and advice to read Humanae Vitae with a pastoral smile and gentle forgiveness, but I find your assumptions sexist and insulting.

  • clevelandjake

    Sexist? I would have said the same thing if it were a male. I don’t care about sex, and I find your assumption extremely insulting. The fact of the matter is that her comment about contraception was misleading and innacurate. I should have said that the Church allows the use of certain birth control pills for women, in circumstances where they need them for health reasons other than preventing conception. I didn’t explain that well earlier. Again, I reiterate: “The church should alter historical and biblical principles to coincide with what is acceptable in today’s society? Should everyone get to dictate their personal beliefs through Church doctrine?” Marianne must also realize, through her education, that the Church does not allow personal interpretation of doctrine for very good reasons… and I am even more puzzled, now that I know of her education, why she would hold certain views. Can I disagree without being called names? That would be great.

  • clevelandjake

    A suggestion to read Humanae Vitae would have been a better way to word it, rather than assuming she hasn’t read it. My bad there.

  • muusk

    …and I am even more puzzled, now that I know of her education, why she would hold certain views

    Perhaps it is just because those views are doctrinally correct? Because she understands the nuances of Catholicism much better than your average Catholic?

  • clevelandjake

    @XVIIHailSkins I have a graduate degree and am currently furthering my education in Theology. So, I don’t feel cornered and I don’t know why you are steering the conversation that direction…

    @muusk No. She isn’t correct in terms of Catholic doctrine. This is why I am puzzled given her education. Her view on contraception and homosexuality is in fact against Church teaching.

  • clevelandjake

    Concerning the original topic of the artice. I don’t agree with how this particular priest handled the situation.

  • echobythelake

    Who did Jesus turn away from the table at the Last Supper? Who did Jesus choose to eat with? Which group of people received Jesus’ strongest criticism? Please don’t scour papal encyclicals or other pronouncements. The answers are in the Gospels. No one was turned away, not Peter, not Thomas, not Judas, no one. Jesus ate at the homes of the most marginalized people of His time, so much so that the Pharisees criticized him to no end. And his harshest words were for the religious leaders of the time who elevated rules over love. I choose to follow Jesus’ example and act with unconditional love, especially when it means breaking the “rules” of the Church. I think He would approve.

  • SimonTemplar

    Controversy? The Catholic Church’s position on communion is long established. The controversy here is contrived by someone who expects Catholics to set aside their beliefs on their behalf; much like the government expecting them to set aside their beliefs on contraception and pay for it for employees of their church run businesses.

  • muusk

    Church teaching is sometimes inconsistent. We do our best to understand church teaching but then must listen to the Holy Spirit in order to discern Gods will for us. The formation of a conscience is not as simple as blindly following the instructions of a prelate. Were it that easy!

  • XVIIHailSkins

    It’s a controversy because the long established position of the catholic church is amoral, xenophobic, homophobic, and a general stain on the ethical fabric of the modern world. Catholics should set aside their beliefs because they are childish and tribalistic, and also because one of the more recently discovered long established positions of the church was the policy of sheltering pedophiles from secular law, so all in all I’d say it’s time for the church to be a bit more humble, a bit more open to sane rhetoric, especially when it comes to questions of sex and sexual orientation.

  • SimonTemplar

    By your reasoning no organization would be able to maintain a system of beliefs or set of guidelines.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    The cub scouts have a set of guidelines. So does the workplace, so do athletic teams, so do schools. The only difference is their guidelines don’t trespass on the free will of humanity, they don’t command stupidity in favor of reason, and they don’t teach that it’s better to contract AIDS than to wear a condom.

  • david6

    No one needs to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican communion maintains the same tradition of succession that Rome does, but in the US, the Episcopal Church shows far more respect to its members than the USCCB does.

    Every Catholic who continues to worship at Catholic churches and gives money that the bishops can get their hands on is, intentionally or not, supporting the bishops and everything they teach, no matter how monstrous. The members can reform the Catholic Church just by taking a walk for a few months or years. The USCCB will reform if forced to.

  • lastofall

    You have asked if any of us could be the next? only if were perhaps an unbeliever which find´s nothing wrong with deliberately continuing to live in sin; then yes, there are many which agree to this in the world.

  • nicolinesmits1

    I’d like to know how often Callista Gingrich was denied communion because she had an affair with a married man.

  • jimwalters1

    Even IF, and this remains a big IF, the preist was absoultely right to deny communion to Barbara Johnson, walking out of the Curch when she spoke was just petty. Refusing to come to the graveside because people he considered sinners would also be present is exactly the sort of behavior that Jesus would have condemned in the Pharasies.

  • RobertDB

    Great comment

  • RobertDB

    Christian’s always say “Hate the sin but love the sinner” right? How is this priest loving the sinner? He can hate the sin privately but he seems he hates and thats not good.

  • ftmonroeboy

    The priest, in confronting Barbara Johnson at the communion rail and singling her out when denying full pastoral care to her mother and mother’s family and mourners, maliciously created a scandal while enforcing a single church doctrine above other, to most of us far more important, doctrines. He violated all manner of “guidelines” while aligning himself with human rather than divine will.

    Good luck with that.

  • usapdx

    PhilyJimi………..What is sin? What degree is the sin to the person? How does one giving communion know a person is NOT in the state of grace when receiving communion? What power does a human have to make a rule that if violated is a sin? Wher is the evidence?

  • usapdx

    No one can take a right from any American what so ever by our country’s supreme law, the Constitution.


    The Catholic Church has allowed serial baby-rapers to PERFORM their masses. They have a very selective idea of “sin”.

  • pacificark

    I find that the Catholic Church no longer represents Jesus’ life and ministry. I still read in the Gospels Jesus’ compassion to everyone he meets, especially in the parable: who is my neighbour–who walked by the man robbed and beaten and left on the sidewalk to die? A priest, a Levite and a Catholic Priest who refused communion to someone mourning. A Samaritan ministered to the man. I want to be a Samaritan, not a Catholic anymore. When I read stories like this one I think of Jesus’ reaction to all the Scribes and Pharisees he comes in contact with and condemns, those who walk around in long robes, seeking the places of honour. How can I not put all those in red and purple robes (even black ones) in the category of Scribes and Pharisees.

    I think that the priest who refused Jesus’ body and blood to Barbara Johnson fits the category of the priest and the Levite perfectly. Barbara, I hope a Samaritan took care of you in your grief.

  • pacificark

    Correct, correct correct! A priest may not refuse anyone Communion.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    @ skins: And like all those other institutions, those who disagree with such guidelines are always trying to infiltrate and stir up controversy to have those guidelines changed.

  • woofwoof3

    She got incredibly blessed.
    Now she can see the true colors of this false ungodly system of worship.
    God loves her. People are easily misled because they don’t know the Bible for themselves. The Catholics teach false doctrines, that aren’t Bibical.

    I have many great friends that were in this deceptive church. They learned about the Bible with the 7th Day Adventist. No other church goes more by the Bible than the Adventist.