Communion Denied to Activists

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

More than 50 gay rights activists wearing rainbow-colored sashes were denied Holy Communion at a Pentecost service yesterday at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in St. Paul, Minn., parishioners and church officials said.

In an act that some witnesses called a "sacrilege" and others called a sign of "solidarity," a man who was not wearing a sash received a Communion wafer from a priest, broke it into pieces and handed it to some of the sash wearers, who consumed it on the spot.

Ushers threatened to call the police, and a church employee burst into tears when the unidentified man re-distributed the consecrated wafer, which Catholics consider the body of Christ. But the Mass was not interrupted, and the incident ended peacefully, said Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"It was confrontational, but we decided not to try to arrest the guy," he said.

The dramatic episode capped several years of increasing acrimony over the Rainbow Sash Movement, an effort by gay Catholics to counter what they view as homophobia in the church.

Beginning in 1997 in England, some Catholics have worn the sashes over their left shoulder to Mass each year on Pentecost, the day on which the New Testament says the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus's disciples. Because the holiday is a celebration of God's gifts, "we think it is an appropriate time to celebrate the gift of our sexuality," said Brian McNeill, a rainbow-sash organizer in Minneapolis.

For a few years, sash-wearers were allowed to receive Communion in some U.S. cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Rochester, N.Y. But since 2004, most U.S. bishops have cracked down on the movement.

Last year, Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican department in charge of worship, wrote a letter to Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul, stating that the rainbow sash is a sign of protest against the church's teachings on sexuality and that the Mass is not an appropriate forum for protests.

The movement's leaders insist that wearing the sash is not an act of protest.

"When Archbishop Flynn and Cardinal Arinze say it's a protest, I say, 'But you guys aren't the ones wearing it -- we are, and we see it as a celebration,' " McNeill said. "The premise of the sash is that gay people are part of the Catholic community, part of the people of God. We are there proudly celebrating Mass."

The number of those wearing rainbow sashes has never been large, and it appears to be declining. The largest single gathering was last year in St. Paul, where about 125 people were turned away from Communion. In most cities, there have been only a few wearing sashes.

None were reported yesterday in the Archdiocese of Washington, which has a policy of denying Communion to anyone wearing a visible sign of protest.

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