The moment was fleeting.
Barbara Johnson reached out to receive Holy Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass last month at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, standing before her, placed his hand over the offering bowl, denying her the sacrament.
Those mere seconds between Johnson, no ordinary Catholic, and Guarnizo, no ordinary priest, have touched off a heated controversy among Catholics across the country — another battle in the seemingly endless cultural wars that have invadednearly every corner of daily life, even funerals.
Conservatives have accused Johnson, an openly gay woman, of promoting a liberal political agenda at her mother’s funeral, of all places. The Archdiocese of Washington has accused Guarnizo, a Russian-ordained traditionalist with powerful friends, of intimidating parish staff after the incident and suspended him from his priestly duties. He, in turn, has essentially accused church officials of lying.
What’s clear, amid all the dissension, is that distinctly different beliefs about Catholicism turned a random meeting of a grieving woman and priest into a theological collision.
Their roots are similar: Both Johnson, 51, and Guarnizo, 42, grew up in the Washington suburbs, come from devout Catholic families and attended Catholic schools.
But Johnson is also a Buddhist who supports gay marriage and other progressive causes. Guarnizo, by contrast, once signed an elaborate document denouncing Catholic politicians who support “morally repugnant” ideas such as gay marriage and was known as a particularly intimidating protester in weekly demonstrations outside a Germantown abortion clinic.
Johnson is an arts educator who travels in liberal circles. Guarnizo, with the help of ex-World Bank and State Department officials, travels through Europe promoting free markets via conservative religious values.
And there they stood one morning in February, facing each other in the holiest of moments, inside a church with parishioners so devout that they hold prayer vigils there 24 hours a day.
To Johnson’s family, turning her away from Communion was “disgusting” and violated their view that a Catholic’s relationship with God is a personal matter, not one that can be determined at a glance by a priest. (The archdiocese, in fact, apologized for the “lack of pastoral sensitivity” she encountered.)
To Guarnizo, however, denying Johnson the sacramental bread and wine was “the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do,” as he said in a statement last week, given church teaching on homosexuality and his view of much-debated canon law governing who is eligible to take Communion.
Priest becomes prominent
The seeds of the collision date back to 2007, when Johnson’s parents joined St. John Neumann because it was near their new home in upper Montgomery County. Though the family showed up at Sunday Mass sparingly — mostly because of the parents’ advancing ages — they were devout Catholics, with priests visiting their homes and counted among their closest friends. When Barbara Johnson’s father, Theodore “Dick” Johnson, died in 2008, the funeral was held at St. John Neumann. She and her longtime partner attended together, and Johnson took Communion without incident.