When Chula, Mo., resident Carol Parker's mother, Alice, passed away the day after Christmas 2013, she took solace in the companionship of her partner of nearly 20 years, Josephine (Josie) Martin, and the expected embrace of her faith community of 12 years at St. Columban Catholic Church in nearby Chillicothe, Mo.
What Parker hadn't anticipated was the action that the new parish priest would take after reading her mother's obituary that listed Josie Martin as Carol Parker's long-term partner. Fr. Benjamin Kneib called the couple on Dec. 29 to tell them that they would be denied Holy Communion at the Dec. 30 funeral mass, explaining in a Jan. 1 follow-up letter that, “Having a same-sex attraction is not sinful in and of itself; it is only when a person moves from attraction to willfully acting upon it that the situation becomes a sinful matter.”
Holy Communion or the Eucharist is a sacrament found in most Christian churches. It is the ritual reenactment of the Last Supper, the final meal of the Twelve Apostles just prior to Jesus's crucifixion. To many Roman Catholics, this rite is the central practice during mass that connects them to divine grace. Denial of communion could be devastating even without the stress of loss. Still Catholic clergy at several levels continue to use denial of communion as a weapon to punish wayward parishioners.
Parker and Martin have lived in the Chula/Chillicothe area for about 14 years. They moved to the Midwest from California, “Where it is very different,” said Parker. “We lived about one-and-a-half hours from San Francisco. We had no problems with receiving communion and we were out.”
Parker was baptized Catholic at birth. Martin joined the Catholic Church at age 17. The couple met in 1994 at a Multiple Sclerosis Society support group and began attending St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Pleasanton, Calif. After relocating to Missouri, they began attending St. Columban Church, leaving for a short time to attend an Episcopal Church. They returned to St. Columban, feeling more at home in a Catholic Church.
The couple had not had any problems at St. Columban before this recent incident. They “sang in the choir, were lectors and Eucharistic ministers, visited the homebound and (those) in the nursing homes. Our parish was going through some transitions and Fr. Kneib came to the parish in July of 2013. We received communion from him from July 2013 until a week before the funeral of my mom.”
Parker said her initial response to the denial of communion was stunned sadness, depression and then anger. According to her, an LBGT ministry team has approached Fr. Kneib on their behalf. She feels that there needs to be reconciliation of LGBT persons with the church. “Our faith is strong and we hope that others would see us as a loving couple; we go through the same problems as other couples. We live a quiet life, except for right now, with our five dogs. We get out to our LGBT group for support and socializing.”
“We have received support from other churches and have found a welcoming church that we will be attending. It is an hour away but it is important for us to have a strong faith community, which I feel we have found.”
Frustrated at their treatment, Parker and Martin contacted PROMO, Missouri’s statewide advocacy organization promoting equal treatment under the law for the LGBT community. PROMO (PROMOonline.org) works both in communities and at the state capital, advocating for LGBT persons. Obviously, the state has no authority to alter specific religious practices but by bringing this matter to light, PROMO and allied media can work to bring social and moral pressure on those who impose church sanctions based solely on sexual orientation.
Kyle Piccola, senior field organizer for PROMO, concluded “It’s unfortunate that during Ms. Parker’s time of loss and mourning she was not allowed the dignity to participate in her mother’s funeral. I hope this opens a dialog with Fr. Kneib to allow Ms. Parker and Ms. Martin to rejoin the faith community they love.”
Both Fr. Kneib and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph communications office declined to comment on this story.
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