Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Reader Writes in Response to Father Guarnizo's Story: "Priests Are Religious Cops"

Matthew 11:28

Father Joseph O'Leary has responded to my recent posting about the pastoral implications of the story of Father Marcel Guarnizo and Barbara Johnson (Guarnizo denied communion to Johnson at her mother's funeral) with the following observation: 

Priests are religious cops in many ways, above all in giving the sacraments. They cannot perform marriage services that are not valid (despite pressures from people who want such services) or give the Eucharist to non-Roman Catholics, for example.

Father O'Leary uses the same terminology and makes the same point in a thread at the Commonweal site started by a posting of David Gibson, which is also discussing the Guarnizo-Johnson story.  Father O'Leary also writes, 

Unfortunately, he [i.e., Guarnizo] makes a good case -- he would be obligated to refuse the eucharist if it was a divorcee living with a second wife, for example -- or if the communicant were not a Roman Catholic.

And I must respectfully and profoundly disagree.  In my view, the primary obligation of a pastor is to be what the word implies: a shepherd.  In the Christian tradition, a good shepherd who seeks out the straying and wounded sheep.  

The primary obligation of a pastor is to heal, draw in, include, affirm, bless.  Not to police.  Not to use the sacraments as weapons to punish or to reward compliant behavior.  And so I have replied to Father O'Leary's statement in the comments section in which he makes this statement, 

"He would be obligated to refuse the eucharist": I think I must be naive, or I lack the insights you've gained as a Catholic pastor, Father O'Leary. 
I can't agree in the least.  Nothing justifies denying someone communion at their mother's funeral. 
Period.  Full-stop.  Bottom line. 
The overriding obligation of a pastor is to be a pastor: one who loves and heals and includes.  Especially at a funeral.

As I say, I am not ordained as Father O'Leary is, and I may be missing much here.  I am a mere layman, who lacks both Father O'Leary's privileged clerical status and his pastoral experience.  What little theological education I have, I struggled to obtain with no support from the church.  I paid for it myself, out of my own pocket, and I freely admit that my theological training may be inferior to that of clerics for whose education the church paid.  And so I may not see something Father O'Leary and others defending Father Guarnizo see more clearly.

I am also strongly inclined to agree with Barbara, who replies to Kathy Pluth and Father O'Leary vis-a-vis these points about a priest's obligation to be a sacramental policeman at the Commonweal thread as follows:

Kathy and Joseph, if she [i.e., Barbara Johnson] were asking for marriage, or confirmation, or to be a godparent or even to sponsor another for confirmation or offer a baby for baptism — these are all things where one would expect a certain amount of scrutiny and education or even correction (although one would hope it would go beyond a snap judgment made on the basis of a 30 second conversation in the hour before a service, with someone who was in effect a stranger). In my own very humble opinion, funerals are one of the few opportunities the Church has to shine grace on people who wouldn’t otherwise be there, in an hour of need. My parents were church exiles, and I still remember the grace shown by the priest who nonetheless rose to the occasion to assist my mother when my father died. No one is going to remember Fr. Guarnizo that way.

As my own posting about Father Guarnizo's behavior to which Father O'Leary is responding notes, it seems critically important to me to recognize that Father Guarnizo chose to withhold communion from a family member at a funeral.  To a daughter at her mother's funeral.  

He did so on the spot, not having known Barbara Johnson.  

I find this behavior pastorally indefensible.  It is inexcusably cruel and anti-Christian.  And I have no time for those who would excuse it for any reason whatsoever.

What Barbara says about the grace shown by a priest to her family when her father died--and her parents were "church exiles"--resonates strongly with me.  It does so for this reason.

My maternal grandmother, whom I loved beyond all measure as I was growing up, was the daughter of an Irish-born Catholic mother who assimilated to the evangelical culture of her rural community in central Arkansas after her family emigrated to Arkansas.  She had no choice except to become either Baptist or Methodist when the family settled on a farm in Arkansas, because those were the only two religious shows in town, in their community, at least.

But my grandmother never forgot that her mother had been baptized Catholic as a baby, and that her mother always cherished her Catholic (and Irish) roots, though she had become a Baptist after she settled in Arkansas.  When my grandmother was dying--that is, in the weeks in which her chronic heart condition and emphysema were progressing towards death, and she and our family were told this--the chaplain in the hospital in which she spent most of her final weeks was an Irish-American priest.  The hospital was a Catholic hospital.

It also so happened that the woman sharing the hospital room with my grandmother in those weeks was an Irish-American Catholic.  And when the chaplain would visit her, he'd include my grandmother in his conversations, and he soon learned of her mother's Irish Catholic past.  

The two hit it off, as did my grandmother with her hospital roommate, who told my mother and her siblings when my grandmother died, "Your mother is in heaven now, and did not have to lift her skirts to walk across the threshold, since a woman with her beautiful soul would have walked right through the door of heaven."  

Because my grandmother had been raised in her mother's Baptist church, my family naturally had a Baptist minister officiate at her funeral.  And so we were rather surprised when the priest who had been an unofficial minister to my grandmother in the final weeks of her life asked if he could attend the funeral and, more than that, have a role in the funeral.  He told us that my grandmother had talked with him a number of times about her mother's Catholic roots and her fondness for those roots.

And he wanted to honor my grandmother's love of her mother and her mother's childhood Catholicism by playing a role in the funeral.  To be specific: he asked the Baptist pastor in charge of the funeral if he could say a prayer of blessing over the casket.  The pastor was very gracious about collaborating and allowing a Catholic priest a role in the funeral.

And so as my grandmother's casket was carried from the church at the end of her funeral, the priest who had asked to attend the funeral prayed the final prayer of blessing and then made the sign of the cross over the casket.

This meant tremendously much to every member of my family.  It was an act of healing, grace, and love that we cherished.  It made our mourning easier to bear.  It gave us a sense that the complexity of our family's religious journey was recognized by both of the churches to which we had ties of one sort or another.

Grace.  Healing.  Love.  Mercy.  Inclusion.  Affirmation.  Blessing.

That's what people seek from pastors.  Especially at a family funeral.

Absolutely not a religious cop.  Not a sacramental judge, either.

For those who want more background information on Guarnizo's . . . interesting . . . past and ties to interesting people, see Michael Rosenwald and Michelle Boorstein in yesterday's Washington Post.  

P.S. I'm very happy that Baptist minister who celebrated my grandmother's funeral, and who could have played the role of a religious cop and purist--a Catholic priest wanting to make his pagan sign of the cross at a good Baptist funeral, the very idea!--chose to be a healer, pastor, includer, and lover instead of a  cop.

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