Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Father Marcel Guarnizo, the priest who famously denied communion to a lesbian Buddhist named Barbara Johnson at a Washington DC church this past winter is no longer in ministry in the Archdiocese.
“Fr. Marcel Guarnizo is a priest of the Archdiocese of Moscow, Russia, who was given a temporary assignment at St. John Neumann parish,” said Chieko Noguchi Scheve, director of media and public relations at the Archdiocese of Washington, in an email to msnbc.com. “That assignment period has ended and Father Guarnizo is no longer in ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington.”
Father Guarnizo made headlines in February when he denied communion to Ms. Johnson, a 51 year-old lesbian and gay activist who was living with a female partner at the time. When she presented herself for Communion during her mother’s funeral mass, Fr. Guarnizo refused to give it to her, saying that “only Catholics in a state of grace can receive communion.”
Johnson, a gay activist who has admitted to being a Buddhist, immediately launched a campaign against the priest to have him removed from ministry and refused to accept a letter of apology from the Archdiocese which was sent to her within days of the incident.
“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the letter said. “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”
At the time, the diocese suspended Guarnizo on a temporary basis, but claims they did so not because of the incident at the funeral, but because he behaved in an “intimidating” way toward parish staff and others “that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”
In a statement made after this initial leave, Fr. Guarnizo said that he understood and agreed with Archdiocesan policy to assume good faith when a Catholic presents himself for communion. “Like most priests I am not at all eager to withhold communion,” he told the Catholic News Agency at the time.
“But the ideal cannot always be achieved in life,” he wrote, noting that he “quietly” withheld communion and did not reprimand Johnson or give her a “small lecture.”
He added: “I would never intentionally want or seek to embarrass anyone publicly or increase anyone’s emotional distress during such a difficult time. I did not seek or contrive these circumstances. But I am going to defend my conduct in these instances, because what happened I believe contains a warning to the church.”
Guarnizo, who grew up in Northern Virginia but became a priest in the archdiocese of Moscow, Russia, was fulfilling a temporary assignment at St. John Neumann parish at the time. He is now no longer in ministry within the Archdiocese.
Johnson, a gay activist, is pleased with the outcome. “It gives me great comfort to see that the Archdiocese of Washington acted swiftly initially not only to point out that his behavior was wrong and not in accordance with their policy but then to suspend him. And this final message from them says to me that, unfortunately, this was not a person that was meant to be in the ministry in this region,” she said. “Knowing that he will not be able to visit such pain on another family in the Washington archdiocese gives me and my family a lot of comfort.”
She went on to reveal what could be her true intention – to change Church teaching – by saying the incident “showed the very human face of the issue regarding the church and the church’s teachings, and behavior towards the LGBT community within the church,” she said. “I just wish that there was a more global and more positive church response to the LGBT community” on issues such as marriage equality and communion.
For his part, Father Guarnizo has become somewhat of a folk hero in some circles. He remains in the area and is a priest in good standing with the Archdiocese of Moscow. A popular speaker, he recently gave a keynote address on “Religious Freedom and Democracy” at Patrick Henry College in Purcelville, Virginia.
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