MINNEAPOLIS — The archbishop of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese denied communion to a group of college students from St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict because they were wearing rainbow-colored buttons in support of gay rights, a member of the group said Tuesday.
Elizabeth Gleich said when students with the rainbow buttons approached Archbishop John Nienstedt at a Sept. 26 evening Mass on the St. John’s campus in Collegeville, he made a sign of the cross over their heads but refused to hand them hosts.
Gleich was wearing a rainbow button but standing in a different line, and said she was served communion. The 20-year-old St. Benedict sophomore from Hastings is a board member of People Representing the Sexual Minority (PRiSM), a school-sanctioned group comprised of both gay and straight students. Gleich is straight.
Nienstedt was traveling and could not be reached for comment, archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said Tuesday.
McGrath said it’s church policy, from the Vatican downward, to deny communion to people who make a public show of opposing church teaching or try to make political statements at mass.
The Mass was several days after the archdiocese acknowledged a campaign to send several hundred thousand DVDs to Catholic families around Minnesota, spelling out the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. In the DVD, Nienstedt called for a public vote on a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
“We wanted to make a statement to Archbishop Nienstedt, to stand in solidarity with GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) students on our own campus that we don’t agree with what he’s doing,” Gleich said.
She said the students involved acted on their own, not under the auspices of PRiSM, and that their actions were aimed at Nienstedt and not at either college.
“We have found a welcoming community here,” Gleich said. “The last thing we want to do is create something divisive within our community.”
Michael Hemmesch, spokesman for St. John’s, said school officials had no comment. He said Nienstedt was invited by school officials to lead a regular Sunday night Mass, and that it was the first time he did so on the rural campus about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
The Rev. Rene McGraw, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s, said he held a short mass for the small group later the same night in which he served all of them communion. He took issue with the archdiocese’s interpretation of canon law when it comes to who can receive communion.
“My understanding of church law is that one is not to deny communion to anyone unless he or she is a public sinner, and that has traditionally been interpreted very narrowly,” McGraw said. “My instinct was these are people who were in need, I’m supportive of them, therefore I’m happy to say mass for them.”
The story was first reported by The Record, the student newspaper for the two schools. St. John’s is a men’s school and St. Benedict is a women’s school, but the two campuses have a close affiliation and most students take courses at both.
It’s not the first time the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese has tangled with gay activists over communion.
In 2005, before Nienstedt was archbishop, a priest at the St. Paul Cathedral denied communion to about 100 gay Catholic activists and their supporters who wore rainbow-colored sashes to mass on Pentecost Sunday. Then-Archbishop Harry Flynn said the sashes appeared to be a protest against church teaching.