Barbara Johnson knew last Saturday, the day of her mother’s funeral, would be difficult. But she and her lesbian partner of 20 years had no idea that the priest at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., would be a source of her grief.
Johnson, 51, of Washington, D.C, walked into the church, mourning the mom she described to msnbc.com as “a really cool woman; she was 85 going on 58.”
When Johnson and her partner arrived at the church – which her mom had attended, and her dad, too, before he died years prior – they were summoned by Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, a man they were meeting for the first time. He didn’t express his condolences, Johnson said, instead curtly getting down to business.
Johnson had painfully written a eulogy; her niece had also penned one. “We only allow one eulogy,” Guarnizo informed them, despite the fact that the church’s music director had told them otherwise, Johnson told msnbc.com. Johnson said she asked her partner to plead with Guarnizo to allow for two while she was called away for her pallbearer duties.
The day, already tense, was about to get significantly worse. Johnson said the priest denied her Communion at her own mother's funeral, telling her he couldn't give it to her because she was gay.
When it came time to hand out bread and wine, Guarnizo “issued a strong admonition that only Catholics in a state of grace can receive Communion,” Johnson told msnbc.com. “I went up. I was standing next to my mother’s casket and he covered the bowl, and said, ‘I cannot give you Communion because you are with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin.’ I stood there with my mouth open in a state of shock for – I don’t know how long.”
But he wasn’t finished, Johnson said. Guarnizo had finally agreed to allow two eulogies, but she said family members told her that he proceeded to walk out of the service in the middle of Johnson’s dedication to her mother – something he didn’t do during her niece’s eulogy.
As the final insult, Johnson told msnbc.com, Guarnizo failed to attend her mother’s burial: “When the funeral home director appears, he says, ‘Father Marcel has taken ill. He says he has a migraine and is unable to accompany your mother’s remains to the cemetery.’ This was, for me and my family, his most egregious act.”
The Johnsons now want Guarnizo removed from his post, and are seeking an apology from him.
“You brought your politics, not your God into that Church yesterday, and you will pay dearly on the day of judgment for judging me,” Barbara Johnson 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.”
Msnbc.com emailed Guarnizo on Wednesday but did not receive any response from him. Long videos online show him delivering anti-choice speeches, calling abortion clinics “veritable death camps.”
Priest doesn't apologize, but archdiocese does
Johnson, whose story was first reported in The Washington Post, said that Guarnizo has yet to apologize to her family or make any public remarks, but on Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Washington sent Johnson a letter of apology after she spoke with the secretary there.
“In my years as a priest, I have encountered many pastoral situations and know that kindness to those experiencing personal loss is a necessary part of the Church’s call to charity,” said the letter, signed by Rev. Barry Knestout of the archdiocese. “The fact that you did not experience this is a cause of great concern and personal regret to me. It is understandable that you and your family would expect the funeral of your mother to be a time of fond remembrance of her life and comfort from the Church in the midst of family grief.”
The letter apologized for the “lack of pastoral sensitivity.”
Guarnizo’s behavior was against the Archdiocese of Washington’s policy, according to a statement issued by officials.
“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 statement 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.”
When asked how she identifies herself religiously, Johnson told msnbc.com, “I’m a Catholic. I’m deeply influenced by eastern religion philosophy and the nonviolence of Gandhi and the Dalai Lama along with my church upbringing.”
Her parents worked hard to provide a Catholic school upbringing for her and her siblings.
“I’ve had a very rich and complex relationship with the Catholic church. As an adult, being a lesbian presents conflicts with one’s spirituality. I’ve been fortunate particularly in the last several years – I’ve received Communion every time I’ve gone to church,” she said.
'My mother loved the Catholic Church ... If she loved it, it was good'
For Johnson, however, the Catholic Church and Guarnizo are totally separate.
“It’s very important for everyone to know that my mother loved the Catholic Church. Her life was not celebrated properly; she wasn’t treated with respect by Father Marcel. His actions have turned people. I have gotten email upon email saying, ‘I’m not going back,’ and I say, ‘Please go back, because that man does not represent the Catholic Church.’ My mother loved the Catholic Church, and if she loved it, it was good.”
Johnson said she’s been overwhelmed by the support she has received from elsewhere in the church since the funeral.
“That’s where I’m focusing. Our family’s mission is to heal. The thing that would be required for that, we believe, would be an apology from Father Marcel. We greatly appreciate the apology from the Archdiocese. We also think he needs to be removed from parish life so no one ever has to experience this on the most tragic day of their lives again.”
Gay and lesbian-friendly faith leaders have backed Johnson.
“Shunning a grieving daughter at her mother’s funeral is a heartless act that violates the great commandment Jesus gave us to love God and love our neighbor. When judgment trumps compassion the Gospel is lost. My heart goes out to a lesbian daughter who loved her mom enough to eulogize her while enduring such unfaithful actions,” said Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network with United Methodist Church.
Added Dr. Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians: “We grieve that this daughter and her family experienced judgment rather than grace and care. We cannot imagine how a priest or pastor could fail to provide pastoral care during the funeral of a loved one.”
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News