US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A pastoral funeral experience highlights the problems with Barbara Johnson's treatment

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

With all the talk surrounding the controversy of Barbara Johnson being denied communion by the priest at her mother's funeral Mass, someone else has come forward with a story that serves as almost an antithesis to the way Johnson was treated.

Anne Monahan was raised Catholic but later left for the Episcopal church, where she was eventually ordained a priest and has spent 30 years in ministry. Monahan writes in an opinion piece for the Washington Post of how at her mother's funeral she was astonished to find the parish being entirely open to her participation in the liturgy, as per her mother's wishes. She wasn't ostracized for being a non-Catholic, nor was she relegated to a minor role. She was treated with respect and dignity by the pastor and his assistant, and told that she could serve fully in the Mass in any way she chose. Monahan was respectful of the boundaries placed upon her as a non-Catholic, and the parish priests were respectful of her role as an ordained minister.

The result, she writes, was a meaningful and touching liturgy that helped family and friends say goodbye to the deceased. "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," Monahan says.

Surely there will be many Catholics who will fill with rage when they read this account and attack the priest that allowed this to occur (Monahan is wisely cautious to protect the priest by not naming him or the parish). But those who do so will miss the point that while this situation may have taken liberties with the language of the church's law, it clearly fulfilled the intent.

I recall talking with a veteran pastor years ago and being surprised when he told me that he considered celebrating funeral Masses to be by far the highlight of his ministry. His fascination was not with death, but with the opportunity that funerals provide: a chance to bring people who may have little or no connection to their faith back into the pews and to help them reconnect with the church. A positive experience on the day of a funeral may be just enough to help someone begin to repair a strained relationship with the church or to rekindle their faith.

Regardless of whether the priest who denied Barbara Johnson communion had the right to do so, the end result was that Johnson and her family were left with a deep pain and bad taste in their mouths when it comes to the Catholic Church. Anne Monahan, someone who left Catholicism because she felt unwelcome, ended up leaving her mother's funeral with a newfound respect for the church, as many in her family surely did as well. It is those types of experiences, not the ones that drive people away, that priests should strive to achieve when ministering to a grieving family.