Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Two Sad Stories and a Happy One

A black youth is killed by a “Neighborhood Watch” warden with the very white name of George Zimmerman.  Stories abound—conflicting and contradicting one another.  Some rally around the white man and cast aspersions on the youth—he was suspended from school; he had been found with marijuana.  He was always in trouble.  They point out that George Zimmerman is in fact Hispanic.  (His ancestry is both European and Latino).  Others speak up for the victim: the President of the United States says: if I had a son, he would look like that young man.   Rick Santorum risks alienating his conservative base and jumps in on the side against the killer.  When Zimmerman’s defenders say: “He looked suspicious—he was wearing a hoodie,” thousands of people wear hoodies to Church to protest profiling.   Zimmerman’s friends claim that he, not the young man, was the victim.  They allege that the kid jumped Zimmerman, beat his head against a sidewalk.  911 tapes are released telling Zimmerman “We don’t need you to do that (follow Trayvon Martin)…” indicating that Zimmerman was out for the kid.  Racist remarks by Zimmerman are heard on the tapes but Zimmerman’s friends say there are other tapes not yet released that will give a different story.  Who knows what happened?  I wasn’t there.  This is what we have Grand Juries for. 
       And it is like the continuing saga of Marcel Guarnizo, the priest who denied Barbara Johnson communion at her mother’s funeral Mass because Johnson isn’t heterosexual.   Guarnizo has his story. Johnson has hers.  Guarnizo is having trouble getting people to go along with his story—not only family members but funeral home employees, parishioners, and even parish staff who were present are not backing him up and in fact accusing Guarnizo of bullying them to support his claims.  So the Archdiocese of Washington is convoking an investigation,  much like a Grand Jury, to determine as best they can the facts of the case.  And people on both sides are making wild accusations at the opposite side.  You know, Don Wuerl, those red hats don’t come cheap.  You pay for them with migraines.
      In the meantime, I want to surface a letter that appeared in the Washington Post two weeks ago that puts a different face on Catholicism.  Not on official Catholicism, the Downtown Chancery sort of Catholicism, but the real every day sort of Catholicism.  An Episcopal Priest,  the Reverend Anne Monahan, wrote of the compassionate warmth she received from a Catholic parish when her mother died and was being buried from a Catholic Church.  read below.  
      When my Roman Catholic mother died, I had a very different experience at her funeral than did Barbara Johnson, the gay woman recently denied Communion during the service for her mother at St. John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg.
       Until my mid-20s, I was, as a friend commented, “a little more Roman Catholic than the Pope.” But after starting a news reporting career, marrying a good Irish Catholic in my family’s parish church and giving birth to three daughters in three years, I had many questions for the church. Soon I found that the church did not welcome questions and had unsatisfactory, rigid answers to many of them. In 1966 I voted with my feet and left for the Episcopal Church, where a priest told me, “We may not have answers but we’ll walk with you on the search for answers.” 
     My journey led to ordination as a priest and a 30-year ministry. Once the culture shock wore off, my parents proudly told the world, including their pastor and his assistant, “Our daughter is a priest.”
      As my mother’s congestive heart failure approached its end stage, she and Dad informed their pastor that they wanted me to participate “up front” at her funeral. When she told me that the priest had agreed, I cynically thought, “The Second Coming will arrive first.” But I said I would ask about funeral participation when the time came. 
       Mom died in the early morning hours of a beautiful autumn day, and in the afternoon I called her priest to inquire about funeral planning. Prepared to be put in my place as an apostate, I gingerly approached the subject of participation, asking if I might read a lesson or lead the psalm.
     “Oh, more than that. You can do anything you want,” Father responded.                     
      “Anything,” he repeated.
       We set a meeting for the next morning at the rectory. There, warmly received by the pastor and his assistant, I found myself talking easily as we discussed our ministries and, as priests often do, exchanging war stories (e.g., a parishioner who wanted to be buried in a columbarium but definitely did not wish to be cremated). People are people, no matter where they pray, and priests have lots of stories to prove it. 
       As we planned Mom’s service, I found that “anything” meant “anything,” beyond my imagination. Both priests urged me to vest in alb and stole and to choose Scripture readings and hymns. When I said I hoped to read a lesson, they insisted it be the Gospel, which is reserved for a priest or deacon. Preach? “Your mother would want you to do that.” Two hours later, the service was outlined. At no time would I be excluded. 
       When I asked if they needed to get approval for my participation from their (very conservative) bishop, they gently informed me it is easier to seek forgiveness than permission, a practical rule I’ve invoked several times in parish ministry. I was awed by their courage in responding pastorally and compassionately to my family even though it might bring them harsh discipline from their hierarchy. (I decided not to name the church here, just to be on the safe side.)
        Vested as a priest, I presided at the reception of the body, read the Gospel, preached, concelebrated at the altar, distributed the bread, imparted the final blessing and led the graveside service from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I will never forget the pride in my father’s face or the tears and smiles of those, especially women, who received Communion from my hand.
       There was no dis-invitation to receive Communion, an act that has offended so many Christians at Roman Catholic services. Everyone was welcome. After all, a female priest was “up front.”
         As I left the cemetery, a local Episcopal priest and his wife, my friends and also former Roman Catholics, tearfully related how my presence at the altar and their reception of Communion had helped to heal the pain they’d felt at their parents’ funerals, where Communion, along with any role in the service, was denied to them.       
       That evening my daughter Sue told the family that, as she stood graveside with the pastor’s assistant, he smiled and quietly said to her, “Remember what you saw today at the altar. That is the church’s future.”
        I pray it is, for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially for Barbara Johnson.
       Well, I don’t know where this happened and hopefully the diocese in question will never find out.  But it just one more example that the Church on the ground is usually far ahead in the journey to God’s Kingdom than the Church of the Chancery office.  If there is anything wrong with Catholicism it is this: that the hardness of the official party line is allowed to mask the evangelical faithfulness of its pastoral practice.   

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