Lilliana Redd’s daughter, who is transgender, was refused Communion during a Sunday Mass this month at St. Vincent de Paul, one of Charlotte’s more conservative Catholic churches.
Nobody disputes that it happened.
But Redd and the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte do disagree on why 15-year-old Maxine Arbelo — nicknamed Max — was turned away by a Eucharistic minister at the parish’s Spanish-language Mass on July 15.
Her mother believes it was because Max, who was wearing makeup and a pink top, identifies as a girl. She’s been transitioning since January, taking hormone pills and seeing a psychologist.
Diocese spokesman David Hains said the priest who celebrated the Mass that day told him it was because Max was chewing gum — thereby violating a Catholic rule that calls for fasting for at least one hour before receiving Communion.
The incident comes at a time when the Catholic Church is deeply divided on how, or even whether, to engage the LGBTQ community, which has long felt unwelcome and condemned by the church.
Many persons who are transgender feel particularly rejected by the broader faith community, not just by the Catholic Church. In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality surveyed 28,000 transgender adults around the country and reported that one in three had left a faith community for fear of being rejected and one in five had left because their faith community rejected them.
And Debi Jackson, a family organizer with the Washington-based center, said she works with many parents of transgender children who feel betrayed by houses of worship in various denominations.
“Some of the people in our support groups have just become so disenchanted with religion overall,” she said. “They feel incredibly hurt that this could be a (faith) community they were a part of before their child was even born. It was a significant part of their lives. ... And yet, suddenly, they get a clear message that their (transgender) child is not OK, their child is not welcome.”
Redd, who lives with her daughter and son in Indian Land, S.C., said she was “surprised and upset” when Max was denied Communion at the Charlotte church. So much so that she went to see the priest and the Eucharistic minister after the Mass. Your daughter is living in sin, she said she was told.
“At first, they said it was because she was chewing gum,” said Redd, a lifelong Catholic who emigrated to the United States from Costa Rica 19 years ago. “But I know that is not the reason because (they) admitted that it was because they and everybody can see Max’s ‘sin’ on the outside ... because of the way she dresses and everything.”
The Rev. Santiago Mariani, who celebrated the Mass that day, refused to talk with the Observer. But Hains, who did speak to Mariani, said the priest denied telling Redd that her daughter was living in sin.
Hains said Mariani did acknowledge telling Redd during their hourlong meeting that, while the Catholic Church teaches that God loves and shows mercy to people who claim a different gender than the one assigned at birth, it does not recognize or condone “transgenderism.”
“He was trying to explain to her that we are what God made us to be,” Hains said. “She may have taken that as a hard teaching.”
Still, Hains said he could find nothing in Catholic teaching that would deny Communion — or the body of Christ, as Catholics believe — to a person simply because she’s transgender. The church teaches, for example, that there is nothing sinful in being gay. Acting on it is the sin, he said.
Max being transgender “had nothing to do with withholding Communion,” Hains said. He said the Eucharistic minister, a layman who had volunteered to help distribute Communion, “didn’t realize the child was transgender. He thought it was a girl.”
The gum was the reason, Hains said. Canon law — the rules of the Catholic Church — says people who are to receive Communion should fast from food and drink (except water) for at least one hour beforehand.
But many Catholics do not follow this rule anymore. And not all parishes enforce it.
“In one church, you might get Communion,” Hains said. “In another, you might not.”
He said some priests in the diocese told him they deny Communion “once every couple of weeks” to persons chewing gum.
There’s also the question of whether chewing gum is really food.
Maxacknowledged that she had been chewing gum early in the Mass but said she gave it to her mother about 30 minutes before joining the line to receive Communion. Her mother gave the same account.
Max said she felt “embarrassed” and “humiliated” when the Eucharistic minister told her that “you can’t receive Communion because you were chewing gum before.”
“I was really shocked,” she said, adding that she then walked past him and returned to her seat.
Like her mother, Max said she believes the real reason she was denied Communion was “because I’m trans.”
And that’s not a worthy reason, she said.
“God accepts everyone,” Max said. “I don’t think it matters what’s on the outside. It matters what’s inside and how you treat people ... and serve (God).”
In the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has called for a more welcoming and less judgmental approach to those in the LGBTQ community. And he has told priests that transgender people deserve the same pastoral care as everybody else.
But the pontiff has also said, in speeches and in his writing, that people are the gender that conforms with their biological sex at birth.
“His concern is that we are choosing to define things in us that have been defined by God,” Hains said.
Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, echoed the pope’s comments when, in 2016, he called “deeply disturbing” a letter the Obama administration sent to every public school system telling them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
The letter, Jugis said, quoting the chairmen of two U.S. bishops’ committees, “contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that ‘the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created.’”
But not all Catholics agree with the pope’s view that people “choose” to be transgender.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, which represents LGBTQ Catholics, told the New York Times that Pope Francis’ remarks showed a “dangerous ignorance” about gender identity, which she said is no more a choice than height.
One of the most debated Catholic books in recent years has been the Rev. James Martin’s “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.”
In a video message to LGBTQ Catholics, Martin, a Jesuit priest, offered this advice: “Don’t listen to people who say that God hates you, rejects you or condemns you for being LGBT. That’s false. And it doesn’t deserve one moment of your time. ... God created you (and) wants you to know yourself and accept the amazing gift that you are.”
Lilliana Redd and Max said they have already sought out — and found acceptance — from another priest at another Catholic parish in Charlotte and won’t be returning to St. Vincent de Paul.
Max said she’d like to see the Catholic Church overall “be more accepting and welcoming to LGBT people and just people in general.”
Her mother said she had hoped that, after being bullied in school and stared at in public, her daughter would find peace in church.
“When I see them deny Jesus’ body to my daughter, that upsets me,” Redd said. “(But) I want to send a message to all the mothers that have kids like Max: Don’t stop taking the kids to church. ... There’s always another Catholic church, another priest. ... (And) God is not about gender. God is about your heart and what you believe.”
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