By now, most people have heard the story of Barbara Johnson and Fr. Marcel. Ms. Johnson asked Fr. Marcel to distribute the Holy Eucharist to her. He said no, but allowed an EME to do so. She now will not rest until he is removed from parish life.
Most of the blog-o-sphere sides with Ms. Johnson. Some comments are hot. Some comments, such as that of lay Canonist Dr. Ed Peters, are temperate and analytical. Some like those of Bishop Knestout try to chart a middle course, acknowledging Ms. Johnson’s hurt without condemning Fr. Marcel. I think they all miss the real issue.
The opinion that follows is my own. It is not that of anyone at St. Francis. It is an opinion based on available information, with the recognition that some facts needed are not public and will never be public.
Based on the facts as I have been able to find them and one fact in particular that never made it into the secular press, I believe Fr. Marcel erred. He tried to reach a practical compromise that met the spirit of the various rules that governed the situation without the time for cool reflection. I, as a layman, of course, do not judge and do not wish to jump on the bandwagon. At the same time, many people are questioning the way the Archdiocese handled the situation. When one identifies the issue correctly — and the issue is not the one that has been reported — , the Archdiocese’s actions were completely appropriate. Ms. Johnson’s behavior has been reprehensible. Now is a time for healing and to let the appropriate ecclesial authorities deal with it.
On February 17, 2012, the Maryland House of Delegates approved the bill by a 72–67 vote. On February 23, 2012, the Maryland Senate approved the bill by a vote of 25-22. On March 1, 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley approved the bill. It is scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2013. The law, however, does not require the Catholic Church to solemnize same-sex “marriages.”
Two days later, a funeral Mass was scheduled at St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg for Barbara Johnson’s mother. The celebrant was Fr. Marcel Guarnizo. Just before Mass, as he was vesting, Ms. Johnson chose to introduce her “partner” or “lover” to Fr. Marcel. Fr. Marcel told her that she should not present herself for communion. Ms. Johnson immediately left the sacristy. Fr. Marcel tried to go to her, but was physically restrained by Ms. Johnson’s “partner” or “lover.”
When the time came for Holy Communion, Ms. Johnson chose to present herself to Fr. Marcel to receive the Eucharist. She did this even though (an) Extraordinary Minister(s) of Holy Communion were available. Ms. Johnson described what happened as follows:
When Guarnizo covered the wine and wafers with his hand during Communion, Johnson stood there for a moment, thinking he would change his mind, she said. “I just stood there, in shock. I was grieving, crying,” she said. “My mother’s body was behind me, and all I wanted to do was provide for her, and the final thing was to make a beautiful funeral, and here I was letting her down because there was a scene.”
. “As a lifelong Catholic and former Catholic school teacher,” Ms. Johnson stated that she was surprised that Fr. Marcel thought her “sexual orientation” was an issue. Ms. Johnson then went to an EME and received Holy Communion.
After having received Holy Communion, Ms. Johnson then gave a eulogy for her mother. Fr. Marcel left the altar. It has been stated that he was sick. Fr. Marcel then arranged for a replacement priest to accompany the family and Ms. Johnson’s mother’s body to the cemetery.
“You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me,” she wrote in a letter to Guarnizo. “I will pray for your soul, but first I will do everything in my power to see that you are removed from parish life so that you will not be permitted to harm any more families.”
The rest of the letter has not been published. Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson contacted Fr. Marcel’s superiors at the Archdiocese of Washington. By Monday, February 26th, the Archdiocese of Washington was investigating the situation. She was able to speak with Msgr. Michael Fisher, the Archdiocesan Secretary for Ministerial Leadership, who then spoke with Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout. Bishop Knestout wrote a personal letter of apology to Ms. Johnson dated February 28, 2012. It is unclear whether this letter was intended to be made public as it differs from the official statement. The letter expressed regret for any personal hurt that Ms. Johnson experienced and characterizes the situation (as Msgr. Fisher reported it to him) as involving a “lack of pastoral sensitivity.” Bishop Knestout also personally spoke with Ms. Johnson and the family.
This apology and personal counseling was not enough. Ms. Johnson informed the Washington Post about the situation. The newspaper published a story on the situation at 9:27 A.M. on Wednesday, February 29th. Television then got involved on February 29th, too.
Judging from the facts above, the following seems apparent. First, Fr. Marcel declined to distribute Holy Communion to Ms. Johnson. Second, it appears that he did so because he believed that it was not appropriate for him, as a priest, to do so publicly. Third, Fr. Marcel attempted to reach a practical compromise by allowing the EME present to distribute the Eucharist to Ms. Johnson. This practical resolution seemed to offer a way out of a very difficult situation — by refusing quietly, Fr. Marcel attempted to disassociate himself as a priest in persona Christi from any possible affirmation that Ms. Johnson’s known behavior was appropriate. At the same time, not having conducted the private counseling that is the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington, Fr. Marcel left it up to Ms. Johnson as to whether she would or would not receive Communion. Significantly, she decided — after being warned twice that she likely should not receive Communion — to receive the Blessed Sacrament.
It also appears that this really was a pastoral situation — Fr. Marcel does not seem to have believed that Canon 915 applied (or if he did, he believed that the policies of the ADW did not allow him to enforce it until and unless he had privately counseled her). If he had, he presumably would have (and should have) instructed the EME to decline to distribute the Blessed Sacrament to her. He didn’t. Where that leaves me is this: Fr. Marcel supplemented to the ADW’s direction regarding the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament with the codicil — in a situation where Canon 915 applies, but for the required private counseling, it is appropriate for a priest to decline to distribute the Eucharist, but to allow an EME to do so.
Viewed in this light, Bishop Knestout’s February 28th letter makes perfect sense. The underlying premise of his letter is that Canon 915 did not apply. If it did, then Fr. Marcel (or even Bishop Knestout) would have had no discretion and the opinion expressed in the letter would have been manifestly unjust. But it appears that even Fr. Marcel believed that he had discretion and once Fr. Marcel had discretion, the question then became one of whether that discretion was reasonably exercised in the circumstances. The circumstance was a funeral Mass for the proposed communicant’s mother; perhaps a Sunday Mass or a daily Mass or a different proposed communicant would call for a different judgment.
It may be that, at some time in the future, the Church will adopt the Marcel Principle and handle these situations as he did. But, as of now, Fr. Marcel’s ecclesial superiors believe that his decision was the wrong one. We should pray for Fr. Marcel and for Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Knestout who have many difficult decisions to make.
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