The moment was fleeting.
Barbara Johnson reached out to receive Holy Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass last month at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg. The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, standing before her, placed his hand over the offering bowl, denying her the sacrament.
Those mere seconds between Johnson, no ordinary Catholic, and Guarnizo, no ordinary priest, have touched off a heated controversy among Catholics across the country — another battle in the seemingly endless cultural wars that have invadednearly every corner of daily life, even funerals.
Conservatives have accused Johnson, an openly gay woman, of promoting a liberal political agenda at her mother’s funeral, of all places. The Archdiocese of Washington has accused Guarnizo, a Russian-ordained traditionalist with powerful friends, of intimidating parish staff after the incident and suspended him from his priestly duties. He, in turn, has essentially accused church officials of lying.
What’s clear, amid all the dissension, is that distinctly different beliefs about Catholicism turned a random meeting of a grieving woman and priest into a theological collision.
Their roots are similar: Both Johnson, 51, and Guarnizo, 42, grew up in the Washington suburbs, come from devout Catholic families and attended Catholic schools.
But Johnson is also a Buddhist who supports gay marriage and other progressive causes. Guarnizo, by contrast, once signed an elaborate document denouncing Catholic politicians who support “morally repugnant” ideas such as gay marriage and was known as a particularly intimidating protester in weekly demonstrations outside a Germantown abortion clinic.
Johnson is an arts educator who travels in liberal circles. Guarnizo, with the help of ex-World Bank and State Department officials, travels through Europe promoting free markets via conservative religious values.
And there they stood one morning in February, facing each other in the holiest of moments, inside a church with parishioners so devout that they hold prayer vigils there 24 hours a day.
To Johnson’s family, turning her away from Communion was “disgusting” and violated their view that a Catholic’s relationship with God is a personal matter, not one that can be determined at a glance by a priest. (The archdiocese, in fact, apologized for the “lack of pastoral sensitivity” she encountered.)
To Guarnizo, however, denying Johnson the sacramental bread and wine was “the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do,” as he said in a statement last week, given church teaching on homosexuality and his view of much-debated canon law governing who is eligible to take Communion.
The seeds of the collision date back to 2007, when Johnson’s parents joined St. John Neumann because it was near their new home in upper Montgomery County. Though the family showed up at Sunday Mass sparingly — mostly because of the parents’ advancing ages — they were devout Catholics, with priests visiting their homes and counted among their closest friends. When Barbara Johnson’s father, Theodore “Dick” Johnson, died in 2008, the funeral was held at St. John Neumann. She and her longtime partner attended together, and Johnson took Communion without incident.
Guarnizo, thin and wiry, with slicked-back black hair, arrived at St. John Neumman in 2011 after a priestly career spent mostly on the other side of the Atlantic.
It was a homecoming of sorts. His father still lives in Northern Virginia, where Guarnizo grew up and attended Bishop O’Connell High School.
He set out to make the church his life, studying theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, one of the many Vatican-affiliated schools in Rome. Holy Cross is associated with Opus Dei, a conservative movement made prominent by Dan Brown’s bestseller “The DaVinci Code,” but the group says Guarnizo is not a member.
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a philosophy professor at Holy Cross who worked with Guarnizo, remembered him as a “polyglot,” a brilliant student, fluent in Italian and other languages, who stuck out for his enthusiasm for big ideas.
“He was especially interested in the fact that the church preaches a gospel of liberation and freedom, and he felt that implies certain forms of governance in society that respect people’s freedom,” Gahl said.
Guarnizo developed an empathy for Catholics in Russia, where many people abhor Catholicism. Guarnizo wanted to help rebuild the church after the fall of communism, once telling an interviewer that he felt a “strong call” to assist. He was ordained there in 1998, one of the first priests anointed in the country in decades.
“He wanted to be a priest for Russia,” said Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, who ordained Guarnizo when he led the church in Russia. “It was his will.”
It was around this time that Guarnizo founded a nonprofit organization called Aid to the Church in Russia, raising more than a million dollars to rebuild a prominent cathedral and help priests.
The organization’s early supporters, board members and advisers included a cast of influential business, political and religious figures. Papers filed with the Internal Revenue Service listed Damian von Stauffenberg, a former World Bank official, as vice president. He is related to Claus von Stauffenberg, the German army officer who tried to kill Adolf Hitler, according to the Library of Congress.
Other figures listed in IRS documents include Frank Shakespeare, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and president of CBS Television, and the Rev. McLean Cummings, who did pastoral work in Russia for Regnum Christi, a conservative apostolic movement whose founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, was discovered to have fathered and sexually abused children. Warren Carroll, the late founder of Christendom College in Front Royal, also was involved in the organization.
It is not clear how Guarnizo came to know these people. Other than the statement he released online, he has avoided speaking to reporters. Many of his closest friends and colleagues have ignored repeated requests to comment on his life.
John O’Sullivan, formerly executive editor of Radio Free Europe, worked with Guarnizo in Europe and remembers him as a “natural entrepreneur.” Around 2005, Guarnizo started a second organization, this one focused on, as he put it, “new intellectual culture in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.”
Guarnizo got help again from von Stauffenberg, and early advisers to the new group — called the Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe — also included Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who became his nation’s first president in the post-communist era. In 2008, according to IRS documents, Guarnizo’s Russian aid group transferred the bulk of its remaining funds — about $800,000, in the form of a grant — to the educational organization.
Around the same time, the organization reportedly held a conference in Croatia where former Polish president Lech Walesa lectured about the fall of communism. Guarnizo appeared to be a rising star among an elite cadre of people looking to revive religion in Europe. He even shows up in State Department documents leaked to Wikileaks that describe meetings he held with senior diplomatic officials about tensions between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.
That an American priest was able to become such a mover and shaker simply reflected the rapid, intenseforces transforming post-communist Eastern Europe, said Nina Shea, a prominent human rights and religious-freedom activist who lives in the District and served on one of Guarnizo’s early boards. “He was trying to help. And someone like Havel would be needing of help. It wasn’t that unusual; they needed to come up to speed quickly,” she said.
In 2008, he lectured at the Conservative Institute of M.R. Stefanik in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He called for moving “away from secular political democracy or political liberalism” in order to “usher in what I would call post-secular democracies.”
“An urgent return to the religion and the metaphysical realism of the West, combined with the promotion of free economies and a sound political foundation is what is now needed to preserve civilization,” he said, according to text provided of his speech, adding that “the Western radicals think they have seen that dark world and they like it, the Eastern Europeans can awake them from their deadly delusion.”
While Guarnizo was hopscotching around Europe, giving speeches, Johnson was back home in Washington, wrestling with her own Catholicism, which had waxed and waned through her life as she confronted truths about her own sexuality. In the past decade, Johnson had returned to her alma mater, Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, to teach art, a move she said was part of a process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms.
But it was also an unsettling time. Her parents were aging and were connected to an unfamiliar church, one they were too infirm to even visit. Johnson and her three siblings, spread around the region, didn’t know the parish, its culture or its members. Nor did they know its pastor, the Rev. Thomas LaHood, who last month compared gay marriage to slavery in a church bulletin.
LaHood has declined to answer questions about St. John Neumann or about Guarnizo’s work there. Archdiocese officials also have refused to explain how a priest so in demand on the world stage wound up in Gaithersburg.
His return to the Washington area put Guarnizo near his father. Gaithersburg is also home base for a charismatic, devout Catholic community called Mother of God, which is officially recognized by the archdiocese but in the past has been criticized by church leaders as being cultish. The Catholic archdiocese in Moscow appears to be part of that community.
Whatever the case, the match between Guarnizo and St. John Neumann seemed perfect. The parish is, by many accounts, large, devout and traditionalist. Parishioners take turns praying 24 hours a day in the church’s “chapel of perpetual adoration.”
Theresa Nino, 53, whose family has gone to St. John Neumann for more than a decade, said Guarnizo reenergized the orthodoxy with regular lectures and his traditional Latin Mass. Most parishioners, particularly older ones, “feel outraged. They feel he’s being railroaded by people who don’t even belong to the parish,” Nino said.
She admired Guarnizo’s leadership at weekly protests outside a Germantown clinic that performs late-term abortions. In speeches to dozens of protesters, the priest has referred to LeRoy Carhart, a physician, as “the butcher of Germantown,” equating abortion with the actions of Nazi war criminals. Carhart, in an interview, said he and his staff were afraid of Guarnizo.
“He is the most likely person to push the boundaries in terms of trespassing and harassing women,” Carhart said. “If there is personal space between you and him, he’s invading it. It gives you an intimidating feeling.”
What’s next for Guarnizo is unclear. In his statement, he questioned the Washington archdiocese’s handling of the case and its allegations of his intimidation. Some Catholic commentators noted how unusual it is for a priest to publicly contradict and criticize his superiors. Doctrine dictates that priests are to be submissive to their bishops.
“If I was Cardinal [Donald W.] Wuerl, I’d buy him a one-way ticket to Moscow,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Washington Jesuit and former editor of liberal Catholic magazine America, said in reference to the archbishop of Washington. “These days, arch-conservative priests feel much more comfortable attacking their bishops than do liberals because they feel they’ll get support from conservative Catholic blogs and maybe some in the Vatican.”
In his statement, Guarnizo said, “I remain my bishop’s and my Church’s, and above all Christ Jesus’ obedient servant.” Since he was not ordained in Washington, his bishop is technically Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow. The Rev. Kirill Gorbunov, spokesman for Pezzi, said the archbishop had no comment on the situation. He knew of no plans for Guarnizo to return to Moscow.
While the priest has been fiercely attacked by liberal Catholics and non-Catholics, conservative Catholics have rushed to defend Guarnizo‘s decision to deny Johnson Communion. That Johnson ultimately received the sacrament from a lay minister that day hardly seems to matter at this point.
The vitriol the incident has unleashed online has unnerved Johnson and her family.
She has found some comfort at the grave site of her parents. She has visited them three times in recent weeks. She brings her father a carton of his favorite chocolate milk. She brings her mother yellow flowers, a gift her husband sometimes surprised her with when they were alive.
They are buried side by side in a Montgomery County Catholic cemetery, where they share a single marker that features a rosary at its center. Beside Loetta R. Johnson’s name is a bas-relief figure of the Virgin Mary. Beside Theodore E. Johnson’s name is a bas-relief figure of Jude the Apostle, the patron saint of impossible causes.