Denied Communion, Part 2
When Between The Lines last spoke with Chief Judge Sara Smolenski in December, the 62-year-old resident of Grand Rapids had recently been informed she could no longer receive Communion at St. Stephen Catholic Church, where she was a lifelong parishioner. The reason provided by Father Scott Nolan, a new priest at the parish, was that she was married to her same-sex partner. To everyone at the church and in the community, the marriage and the long-term relationship were never a secret.
Since that time, Smolenski has had time to reflect — and grieve. This was particularly acute when, out of respect, she felt it necessary to skip a fellow parishioner’s funeral.
“There was a longtime parishioner that died,” Smolenski explained. “And I thought, ‘My gosh, I want to go to his funeral. But I don’t want to go to St. Stephen’s and have everybody know I’m sitting in the pew when it’s Communion time.’ So I did not go to his funeral. And I thought, ‘Really? That’s sad.’ But I thought, ‘Really, I don’t want to make an issue of it.’ I didn’t want to take away from what their family was going through. But I didn’t want to be the one left in the pew and say you’re not good enough to come up.”
Smolenski offered an analogy to put a finer point on her predicament.
“It reminds you of being invited somewhere for dinner but you cannot eat,” she said. “Where have you ever been invited to someone’s home for a meal and you cannot partake?”
In no uncertain terms, Smolenski reported she won’t return where she’s not welcome to fully participate in the service. She then compared her reaction to that of Terry Gonda, who was fired from her part-time job as music director at a parish in Auburn Hills because the Archdiocese of Detroit became aware of her same-sex marriage. Similarly, the marriage was well-known to the pastors and parishioners.
“I don’t want to go back when I can’t go up for Communion,” Smolenski stated. “I feel like I’m being told I’m not good enough to be a real member — but you can visit. And that’s no way to have a faith-based group to be with.
“I jokingly think [Gonda]’s a better Christian than I am, because she is a spiritual director,” she continued. “So she has a lot of expertise in helping people from a spiritual perspective. And I appreciate that she doesn’t want people to be angry at the hierarchy or angry at the church or angry at all priests. I’m not exactly there, because I think it’s the opposite of what Jesus would really want us to do: get along with everybody, treat everybody equally, be kind and considerate and be the kind of person God wanted us all to be.”
Smolenski expressed frustration at how arbitrarily she believes she is being treated. Before and since the original story broke, she has received Communion at other parishes where her marital status is known. Not only that, she’s heard from concerned pastors near and far, who report never having denied anyone Communion.
“Here’s my biggest issue,” Smolenski said. “It’s discrimination. How I see it is discrimination. Whether it’s the rule or not. How does one priest do it so totally different from another?”
Just as Gonda’s fellow parishioners were left with feelings of anger, sadness and confusion about her firing, so too were many who attend St. Stephen, about Smolenski’s plight. Between The Lines spoke with one of them.
Micki Benz has known Smolenski for 30 years. She is also a St. Stephen parishioner. According to Benz, there was “quite an uprising” when news spread that Smolenski would be denied Communion. Benz and others held “very civil” conversations with the pastor and parish council, but no one’s minds were changed, Benz said. Now, she says, she and her husband “don’t feel comfortable” going back to St. Stephen.
Benz explained how she understands the circumstances.
“In the context of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, there are priests who understand that there are people in our church who are gay who still want to be Catholic and they are welcomed — just not at St. Stephen’s,” Benz said.
Benz’s friend in the diocesan office explained to her that marriage is a very public statement. And the diocese cannot be seen to support something like that that’s clearly against the principles of the Catholic Church. However, Benz and many others don’t think same-sex marriage or being gay is against the principles of the Catholic Church in the first place.
“I know there are people who are supportive of this rigid direction,” Benz said. “To me, the saddest thing is that it’s divided up our parish. It was a very tight-knit, close, active parish. And it’s very divided now.”
When asked what she thought of the Catholic Church’s exclusionary approach in her own and Gonda’s experience, Smolenski questioned why church leadership insisted on “shooting themselves in the foot.”
“There’s a lot of people have been saying to me, ‘Well, Sara, what took you so long? What took you so long to realize. … Why’ve you stayed this whole time?’” Smolenski said.
“The younger people don’t like to put up with any of that [discrimination],” she continued. “It’s a deal-breaker. And if that change means they won’t be going to the Catholic Church, so be it. I don’t know if that means the Catholic Church would become extinct or nonexistent.”
There are plenty of people who attend the Catholic Church because they have always gone and it fits for them, said Smolenski.
“They’re not worried about you or your problem. It doesn’t happen to them. Until their kid is gay. Or their sister. Or their family member. It’s like Black Lives Matter is an example of — this is a problem for everyone. You don’t have to be Black to realize this a huge issue. But sometimes people just find what fits comfortably for them, until they’re forced to face the reality of what’s happening.
Smolenski said she’d reconsider returning in the event a new pastor came to St. Stephen.
“Now maybe say they get somebody else,” Smolenski suggested. “And I hear he’s very progressive and inclusive. I wouldn’t hesitate. Because the majority of the people that are there, that I’ve known for the 62 years I’ve been part of the church, are wonderful, loving, great people.
“It’s a great parish,” she continued. “It really helped mold who I am today. When this whole thing happened … it felt like grieving my parents again. It felt like a death to me. When he said I can’t come up for Communion, to a church I’ve belonged to virtually my entire life. A church that I can barely separate from my family.”
For now, having “time off” due to novel coronavirus precautions has been, in Smolenski’s words, “refreshing.” She echoed a sentiment the Rev. Roland Stringfellow shared with BTL shortly after COVID-19 spread to Michigan and MCC-Detroit started holding services via videoconference: “God is not confined to a building,” he said.
“I don’t think you need a physical structure to have a church base,” Smolenski said. “I think that you can have your strong faith in how you live, what you learned, how you’ve been raised. Your faith is a big part of you. But it isn’t just blossoming just because you go to a church. Each one us has to work on our own faith life, whether you go to church every day or not.
“So let’s say you take your bike and you go ride to a beautiful nature trail,” she continued. “That can be a faith-filled experience. I say that now because I’m riding my bike 10 miles a day. And I do this nature trail that’s absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking and sometimes I find myself praying or thinking about somebody that might need my prayer of health. Just because I’m not going to church doesn’t mean I can’t pray and have a faith-filled experience.”
Going forward, Smolenski says she doesn’t think her churchgoing days are over. That’s always been an important part of her life. However, it sounds like she’s not “married” do the idea of returning to the Catholic Church, whether that means short or long term.
“I don’t think I’ll stop going to church,” Smolenski said. “But sometimes when I go to the Methodist church or another church of different religion, they are so — It can be a very powerful experience. The Catholics are no different than anybody else — we’re no better, we’re no worse. [We’re] people trying to live our lives. But when the church goes in what appears to be a complete opposite direction of what you really believe Jesus would want to do, it’s hard to stay with it.”