Grand Rapids judge leaves church after being denied communion for being gay

Judge Sara Smolenski

By Alexis Stark

On Nov. 23, 2019, Judge Sara Smolenski received a call from the Rev. Scott Nolan at St. Stephen Catholic Church.

Nolan requested that Smolenski, who presides over Grand Rapids’ 63rd District Court, abide by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and not take communion because she is married to a woman. Some churches have taken similar action against leaders who support abortion rights.

“It felt like being invited to someone’s house for dinner, but you can’t eat the food,” Smolenski said.

After local media covered her marriage to Linda Burpee, Smolenski did not expect her sexual orientation to be an issue in her home parish. During an interview with WOOD-TV, Nolan said Catholic teaching gave him no choice in making his decision.

Since that phone call, Smolenski’s story of discrimination reached local and national media outlets. She also faced responses from people who accused her of going to the media.

“I never called the media, but when they reached out, I chose to speak out,” Smolenski said.

In response to Nolan’s decision, some parishioners wrote a letter urging the community to write to Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak and Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

Rev. Scott Nolan

“The St. Stephen community is experiencing a crisis of leadership involving selective discrimination against gay parishioners … these acts have been destructive to the culture of inclusion and diversity that are hallmarks of St. Stephen,” the letter read.

Smolenski said there were other parishioners who didn’t question the incident. St. Stephens also kept mailing parish contribution envelopes to Smolenski’s home, even after she and her spouse stopped attending mass. Nolan didn’t respond to a request for comment for the story.

“For months, I was so sad,” Smolenski said. “I’m still very sad about it. I stopped going to St. Stephens because it makes me feel too sad. Then I became angry. Now I think I’m past the anger because I know that’s not how all priests feel.”

When Fountain Street Church’s Minister for Spiritual Life and Learning, the Rev. Christopher Roe, first heard about Smolenski’s story last year, he responded with grief and sadness.

“I found it so disappointing that someone would experience such discrimination in their spiritual home,” Roe said. “I’m not Catholic, but I understand Catholics to be deeply rooted in tradition; it’s embedded in your identity and your family’s identity.”

Roe also reflected on the vulnerability and ripple effects of someone in the public sphere experiencing discrimination because of their identity.

“For anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma in their life, there are different things that can trigger it. With Sara’s situation, whether you’re Catholic or not, I think it stirred up a lot of trauma, specifically experiences of rejection or discrimination, for a lot of people in our church and the spiritual community,” Roe said.

As much as the last six months have dampened her spirits, Smolenski’s faith remains unshaken. Depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, when churches begin opening their doors again, she is unsure about what church she will call home.

Despite the Catholic church’s theological understanding that same-sex marriages live in opposition of biblical teachings, Smolenski continued attending the church she was baptized and raised in because it fit for her.

“I grew up in that church. It helped form my faith. I never had a priest tell me I wasn’t welcome or could not be a part of the church because of I was gay,” Smolenski asserted.

This incident also further solidified her doubts regarding the Catholic church’s institutional view on who is worthy of communion and by extension, God’s love.

“It’s not perfect; I’m not perfect,” Smolenski said. “When that priest told me I couldn’t have communion, I really felt like I knew what discrimination meant. It becomes personal when someone says you aren’t welcome.”

As a Catholic, Smolenski chooses to believe in the Christian teachings that God does not make mistakes and Jesus loves and accepts all people, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or background.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am; I’m proud. Jesus doesn’t make mistakes, so none of us were born as mistakes,” Smolenski said.

Though hurt by the incident, Smolenski felt encouraged by the support from her community and across the country. She even received an invitation from a Catholic church in Ireland.

“A man named Angus from Ireland wrote me a letter telling me I was welcome to his village’s Catholic church anytime,” Smolenski said. “I kept a notebook full of hundreds of notes, emails and handwritten letters of support. They were so powerful.”

Today, Smolenski questions the Catholic church’s discrimination, arguing that it excludes God’s children from practicing their faith in their church community.

“How can this rule be applied so discriminately? Why are the rules different from one church to another, priest to priest,” Smolenski said.

Earlier this month, the Detroit Archdiocese fired Terry Gonda, St. John Fisher Catholic Church’s music director, for being married to a woman. According to the Detroit Free Press, her firing occurred nine days after the U.S. Supreme Court granted federal job protections for LGBTQ employees, although churches are exempt.

Given the increased progressive activism during the Trump era and the Black Lives Matter movement’s increased visibility, Smolenski reflected on her role in creating change and challenging institutional discrimination.

“We have to use our voice, especially white people, because that’s how change is going to happen with any form of discrimination,” she said. “We need to do what is right and I don’t think that’s what the Catholic church is doing.”

Complete Article HERE!

German Bishops Rethink Catholic Teachings Amid Talk of ‘Schism’

Conservatives, particularly in the U.S., greet the prospect with alarm

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich (far left) during an audience with Pope Francis (right) at the Vatican last year

By Francis X. Rocca

Germany’s Catholic bishops will meet in Frankfurt on Thursday to launch their most ambitious effort yet in their role as the church’s liberal vanguard: a two-year series of talks rethinking church teaching and practice on topics including homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and the ordination of women.

Conservatives in Germany and abroad are greeting the prospect with alarm, and nowhere more so than in the U.S., whose episcopate has emerged as the western world’s foremost resistance to progressive trends under Pope Francis.

The tension between the groups epitomizes significant divisions in the church, which some warn could lead to a permanent split.

Earlier in January, a group of conservative Catholics from various countries, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. who has become one of the pope’s harshest critics, gathered in Munich to warn that the German initiative would result in “the constitution of a church separate from Rome.”

The event starting this week originated as a response to the scandal over sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests. A 2018 report on the crisis in Germany called for a more positive attitude to homosexuality and more attention to the challenge of celibacy. Catholic women’s groups later prevailed on the gathering to also address the question of gender equity in the church’s leadership.

The decline of the Catholic Church in Germany has accelerated amid the scandals and growing secularization. According to the church’s latest statistics, 216,078 people left the church in 2018—a leap of 29% from the previous year. A poll published in January by the Forsa Institute showed that only 14% of Germans trusted the Catholic Church, down from 18% the previous year. Trust in Pope Francis fell to 29% from 34%.

However, the church in Germany is prospering as never before in material terms, receiving a record €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) through a state-collected tax in 2018. German bishops are among the biggest financial supporters of the Vatican and of Catholic institutions in the developing world.

German bishops have enjoyed rising influence under Pope Francis, reflected in his policies of greater leniency on divorce and more autonomy for local church authorities on matters such as liturgy—moves long advocated by German theologians.

The leaders of the German synod, which will include representatives of Catholic laypeople, say they are offering it as a model for the church at large.

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, head of the German bishops’ news agency, estimates that around two thirds of the bishops—the threshold for passing a resolution—support the ordination of married men and women deacons and half are in favor of blessings for same-sex unions.

American conservatives say that for a branch of the church even to consider such moves poses a threat to unity.

“The German bishops continue move toward #schism from the universal Church,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said on Twitter in September.

A minority of German bishops share such fears—and look to the U.S. for support. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, leader of the German conservatives, traveled last summer to the U.S., where he visited various church institutions and met with some of his most prominent American counterparts.

“Everywhere, I encountered concern about the current developments in Germany,” the cardinal later told his diocesan newspaper. “In many meetings, the worry was tangible that the ’synodal path’ is leading us on a German special path, that in the worst case we could even put communion with the universal church at risk and become a German national church.”

Pope Francis himself has cautioned the Germans not to stray too far.

“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” the pope said in an open letter to German Catholics in June.

But after meeting with the pope and Vatican officials in September, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, chairman of the German bishops conference, said: “There are no stop signs from Rome.”

In fact, when Pope Francis has publicly entertained the possibility of a split in the church, it has been in regards to the U.S., not Germany.

“There is always the option for schism,” the pope said in September, in response to a reporter’s question about conservative American opposition to his agenda. “I pray that schisms do not happen, but I am not afraid of them.”

That lack of fear could be because only the pope can decide whether or not a state of schism even exists, said Adam DeVille, a professor of theology at Indiana’s University of Saint Francis.

“If things get too far out of hand one way or another, I can see him acting in extreme but selective cases,” to stop any separatist moves, Mr. DeVille said.

“All it would take would be the sudden forced ‘retirement’ of a couple especially outspoken or perceived troublemakers, in Germany or anywhere else, for the others to shut up, and fall docilely in line,” he added.

Complete Article HERE!

EGR priest denies Communion to gay judge

Judge Sara Smolenski

by:

Judge Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the Kent County District Court, has been denied Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades because she is married to a woman.

It is a move that for many was the final straw in a pattern of behavior that has them calling for the removal of a priest — a priest who came to St. Stephen Catholic Church about three years ago.

In 1966, under the leadership of Rev. Msgr. Edward N. Alt, St. Stephen Catholic School became the first integrated Catholic school in Metro Grand Rapids and had a student body that was nearly 40 percent non-Catholic.

This tradition of inclusion and acceptance would be the essence of the school and the church for 50 years.

But now, some here say that is changing.

“I’ve been a member of St. Stephen’s Catholic Parish for 62 years, basically,” Smolenski said.

Smolenski who has been on the bench for nearly 30 years, comes from a family of prominent community members, including her father who was also a district court judge, and her brother, a state appeals court judge.

“I was baptized there, my parents were married there, every one of my nine siblings went to school (from) first through eighth grade. We buried my parents out of that school,” Smolenski said. “This is a church that is a part of who I am. This is a church who helped form my faith.”

News 8 featured Smolenski in March of 2016, when she became the first Kent County elected official to marry someone of the same sex.

But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.

“The way he said it was ‘because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,’ that’s how he said it,” Smolenski explained. “I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.”

It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.

“Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,” Smolenski said, fighting back tears. “I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.”

Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.

“The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,” Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.

It is part of a pattern, according to Micki Benz, a 40-year member of the parish who is a part of a group of members who have decided to speak out.

They point to the words of Pope Francis who wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation.

Evangelii Gaudium, translates as “joy of the Gospel,” that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak and the church is not a toll house but a place for everyone.

“(Nolan) has eliminated teachers who are gay. He has made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” Benz said.

For a period of time, Nolan forbade non-Catholics from participating in church services, including choir and reading before the congregation, members say.

Parishioners met with Nolan and were hopeful that he was changing his ways, until last Saturday when the beloved judge was denied Communion.

Nolan talked to News 8 briefly Tuesday, promising he would speak on the issue but then did not call back or return messages.

There are those who believe Nolan is in the right, but they would not go on camera. Others with kids attending school would not go on camera due to fear of reprisal, but all say they love the church and want healing.

“I love the St. Stephen’s I knew. I don’t love the St. Stephen’s of now,” Smolenski said.

Some members say it would be better overall for the church to change pastors.

“We don’t see Father Scott changing; therefore we’ve come to the conclusion that it’d be better for him and us if there were a change in our pastors,” Benz said.

Some parishioners have drafted a letter to Bishop David Walkowiak, bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, explaining their position and asking for a meeting — a request he has not responded to in the past.

>> Inside WOODTV.com: Letter to Bishop David Walkowiak.

“We really, really want a meeting with him. Everybody is prepared to be very respectful. We just want him to know what this is doing to one of his parishes,” Benz said.

News 8 reached out to the Diocese of Grand Rapids who would not address the issue of whether Nolan’s actions are supported by the bishop.

A spokesperson did issue this terse statement presumably about what happened with Judge Smolenski: “This is a spiritual matter between her and her pastor.”

Smolenski says it is time to bring this into the light.

“I want to help somebody out there who’s never even been born to make their life a little bit easier — by standing up and speaking the truth,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican office suspends Indy archdiocese’s Brebeuf decision

By: Bob Blake

A Vatican office has temporarily suspended the decision of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to no longer recognize Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School as a Catholic institution over the school’s refusal to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage.

The decision of the archdiocese to cut ties with Brebeuf was announced in June in a decre from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.

The school reached out to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome to consider “the issues at hand and, hopefully, rescind and permanently set aside the Archbishop’s decree.”

“We have just learned that the Congregation for Catholic Education has decided to suspend the Archbishop’s decree on an interim basis, pending its final resolution of our appeal,” school President Father Bill Verbryke wrote in a letter posted to the school’s website on Monday. “The Archbishop very kindly informed me that, as a result of this temporary suspension of his decree, Brebeuf is free to resume our normal sacramental celebrations of the Eucharist. Most happily, this means that we will be able to celebrate the Mass for the Feast Day of St. Jean de Brebeuf on October 24.”

In the letter Verbryke said the suspension of the order is temporary.

“It does not mean that the matter has been resolved, or that any permanent decision has been made,” Verbryke wrote. “It also does not mean that anyone should infer that the Congregation for Catholic Education is leaning one way or the other on any of the issues at hand. The Congregation has simply granted a temporary suspension of the Archbishop’s decree until it makes a final decision.”

Complete Article HERE!

Archdiocese claims 1st Amendment against gay teacher’s lawsuit.

Here’s how that could play out.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis enrolled 23,206 students in the 2018-19 school year, and it has 68 Catholic schools, including seven high schools. Here’s what we know.

By

A judge will soon decide whether the Catholic Church’s First Amendment religious rights protects it from a lawsuit filed by a fired Cathedral High School teacher who is gay.

Joshua Payne-Elliott was fired in June for being in a same-sex marriage, something the archdiocese says violates church doctrine. The school had the option of firing Payne-Elliott or being stripped by the archdiocese of its Catholic status. Cathedral chose to dismiss the teacher, who had been with the school since 2006 as a world language and social studies teacher.

Payne-Elliott in July sued the archdiocese, stating that he has suffered lost wages, lost employer-provided benefits and endured emotional distress and damage to his reputation.

The archdiocese filed a motion this week to dismiss Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit, citing First Amendment protections and jurisdictional issues. Jay Mercer, attorney for the archdiocese, said he’s confident a judge will rule in the archdiocese’s favor.

While a constitutional law expert who spoke to IndyStar didn’t rule out the chance that the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss will prevail, he said it would be more complicated than it appears.

What the attorneys say

Mercer said the archdiocese is governed by Catholic canon law and that the archbishop is tasked with ensuring Catholic teachers abide by church doctrine. The archbishop’s right to do so without court interference is enshrined in the First Amendment, Mercer said.

“The court would be substituting its judgment for the archbishop, which it could not do because the court cannot put itself as the leader of the Catholic church,” Mercer said Thursday. “It would be inappropriate for a court to say it (the archdiocese) doesn’t have this authority. It would be violating the Constitution.”

The archdiocese’s motion asks the court to dismiss the case on grounds that it isn’t constitutionally allowed to interfere with church governance. The 20-page document cites a slew of case histories and rulings to support its argument.

Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, said archdioceses get sued all the time, making it clear that they can fall under court jurisdiction.

“I think they’re really overreaching,” DeLaney said of the archdiocese’s motion.

DeLaney argues that a court can hear and decide her client’s lawsuit without making a judgment about church doctrine. The case is really about the archdiocese interfering with a separate entity, Cathedral High School, to force Payne-Elliott’s termination without justification, DeLaney said.

In the archdiocese’s motion, Mercer says the plaintiff fails to show there wasn’t justification for the archdiocese’s involvement that led to Payne-Elliott’s firing. When asked by phone about alleged improper interference, Mercer said the merits of that allegation won’t even make it to court.

“The merits of this case will never be litigated because the court has no authority,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!