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When Father Scott Nolan called Sara Smolenski on Nov. 23, the chief judge of Michigan’s 63rd District Court thought perhaps he was reaching out because she hadn’t attended services at St. Stephen Church in East Grand Rapids, where she has been a lifelong parishioner, for some time. That was not at all the case. Instead, the young priest asked her to “respect the church” and not come up for Communion anymore because Smolenski is married to her spouse, Linda.
“I can tell you, it’s extremely distressing,” Smolenski said, of being denied Communion, the sacred act in which Catholics unite with Christ and symbolically form a single body. “I grew up in that church as a kid, as a family, going to the school with all my siblings. It was a big part of my upbringing. So the feeling has been, I’d say, profound sadness because it feels as if a bit of you has been pulled away. It feels as if in a way it’s like a death.”
Smolenski said she had been attending different Catholic churches regularly and receiving Communion during that time, “never thinking about it.” The combination of dissatisfaction with some of the current leadership at St. Stephen along with building renovations kept her and some others away, by choice, for several months. Nolan certainly knew of Smolenski’s marriage three years ago to her partner of 30 years, which occurred around the time he began his service at St. Stephen. Notably, Smolenski received Communion from Nolan Nov. 17, a week before his phone call. During that call, he also asked that she not receive Communion from any of the lay ministers who are Eucharistic ministers at the church.
The Diocese of Grand Rapids issued a statement that supports Nolan’s actions. Basically, the Diocese maintains that while the Catholic Church believes in inclusion and acceptance, it cannot abide contradictions to its core teachings: in this case, that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman. Smolenski calls it selective discrimination.
“I’ve been Catholic my whole life,” said Smolenski, who is 62. “But I never remember sitting through any religion class where they said if you’re gay you can’t have Communion. I just was never taught that. And I’m not trying to fight the whole Church. If that’s the Church’s teaching, I guess my question would be, ‘How come you don’t apply it? How come you don’t apply the rules to everybody? … If you have a child out of wedlock, or if you’re using birth control, or if you cheat on your taxes, or steal’ … you could just keep going with the list. But do they apply it to everyone? It certainly didn’t feel that way, from the people that I’ve been talking to. And so the selective enforcement — it seems random.”
The reason Smolenski was not denied Communion on Nov. 17 is most likely that Nolan did not wish to publicly humiliate her, she believes. That’s something that did occur with a same-sex couple at St. Stephen in January. There to attend a dinner with their school-age daughter, the couple was denied Communion in the girl’s presence. Many were unhappy with the way Nolan handled the situation.
Denial of Communion occurs on a case-by-case basis. At times, it’s employed to make a statement, in a political or cultural context. Smolenski doesn’t believe that’s the case here.
“I think this is a very, very young priest. … I think he thinks he’s doing it exactly by the book, and he has no other choice. But I don’t think he’s ever had any mentor; I don’t think he’s ever talked to other priests.”
She added that she received a sympathetic letter from someone who’s been in the priesthood 50 years and has never considered denying someone Communion.
St. Stephen has been very forward-thinking in its cultural and racial diversity, according to Smolenski. Unfortunately, this incident has caused pain and divisiveness among parishioners. However, a Methodist church nearby rallied in support of Smolenski and her spouse, who is Methodist but not a member of that particular church, inviting them to an inclusive and open Communion service just days later. All faiths and denominations were welcome. She described it as beautiful and welcoming.
“It was just very touching to see another church reach out. ‘Cause this isn’t just a Catholic issue, really. It’s hurtful to a lot of people. You don’t have to be Catholic to feel hurt about it, or to feel misunderstood.”
“My Faith Is Strong”
“I’m not a theological scholar in any way,” Smolenski continued. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you all of the rules of the Catholic church. And there are some who have written in the articles about this, ‘Well, she should have known.’ Or, ‘she’s the one living in sin.’ And I just say, he asked me to respect the church, and I’m saying it’s kind of ironic ‘cause it’s that very respect and love that I have for the church that I feel so strongly in opposition to the stance that he is taking, that he believes 100 percent is the Church’s stance. If it is 100 percent the Church’s stance, why is it happening now? And I can’t be the only gay person, let’s get real. I grew up at that church — that church helped mold me into the person that I am. My faith. And my faith is strong. My faith is part of who I am. Being gay is who I am also. I was born that way. And I don’t doubt that Jesus loves me. I’m not perfect.”
Smolenski said the experience has not shaken her faith, because her faith is not solely tied to the Catholic Church; first and foremost, it is her relationship with God. Indeed, there are aspects of the Church as an institution with which she disagrees: women’s lack of leadership roles, for example.
While accusations have been made that Smolenski sought attention for her plight, she insists that’s not true: a local reporter showed up in her courtroom to speak with her about Nolan’s actions — and the next thing she knew, CNN requested an interview. It’s been covered widely since then, from Huffington Post to the most conservative of media outlets. Her story has touched many.
“There are a lot of people that are very, very beautifully faith-based people that don’t buy into everything that the institutional church stands for,” Smolenski explained. “Which is why I think I’m getting so much response from people that feel that this is wrong. People that are writing letters from all over the United States. And it doesn’t mean that they aren’t good and faithful Christians or good and faith-based persons. They just think that Jesus welcomes everyone to the table.”
Finally, Smolenski spoke of recently arraigning a man who was charged with first-degree murder.
“It dawned on me later, after I was out of the courtroom … he can have Communion, and I can’t,” she said, with resignation. “And I thought to myself, ‘I would vote that he should be able to get Communion.’ There are priests that go to prisons to give Communion to prisoners. And I’m not against it. But it seemed — the dichotomy was not lost on me.”
Smolenski hasn’t been back to St. Stephen. However, amid the unasked-for attention and personal grief, she reached out to Nolan.
“Last week I wrote him a note and mailed it,” she said. “And I just said, ‘Father Scott, this has been very sad and difficult. And I know it has been for you, too. Peace, Sara Smolenski.’”