Profile Remembrances

John J. McNeill

As Remembered by Bernard Lynch

I was on my way to see my shrink on Fifth Avenue and Sixty-Sixth Street the day John McNeill’s book The Church and the Homosexual hit the front pages of The New York Times. The year was 1976. I don’t know if I was looking for a cure for my homosexuality or some kind of miraculous deception to deal with my priestly celibacy and emerging homosexual consciousness. What I do know is, that the sight of McNeill’s book being reviewed, did more for my psychological health than the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours spent in therapists offices up and until then. Father McNeill’s book opened for millions of lesbian and gay Catholics and others world wide a door to freedom that no amount of oppression could ever close. I was elated as I floated into my psychiatrist’s Doctor Padovano’s office. Here at last was hope.

I had read prior to this everything that I could lay my hands on in Catholic moral theology regarding homosexuality. The combined effect being a profound confusion of thought followed by bottomless despair. Here at last was a true work of scholarship meticulously researched and beautifully executed. Scripturally and theologically it broke new ground and for the next twelve months and more John M Neill’s face was on every chat show and every other publication across the nation.

John was instrumental in founding Dignity New York in 1972, an organization for the support of LGBT Catholics and their friends. His work and experience in those early days -- less than three years after the Stonewall Riots -- with Catholic gay men “compelled” him he once told me to respond in whatever way he could to the “loneliness, pain and anguish” of his gay brothers. Having been attracted early on in his studies to Maurice Blondel a French pre-existentialist philosopher from the turn of the century, he found his Jesuit vocation summed up in a passage of Blondel’s: “One must give all for the all.”

Certainly, this laid the theoretical basis for his movement into political and social activism. A Jesuit for almost forty years before his expulsion in 1987 for his views on lesbian and gay sexuality, eventhough he had obediently obeyed his silencing by the Vatican in 1977. John hoped that his silence would “speak eloquently” together with other greats like Blondel, Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray and Henri de Lubac. But ten years was not enough for the new inquisition in Rome. “Forced” to speak in response to the “evil” oppression of Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on The Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, Father Mc Neill gave up membership of the religious family –the Jesuits- that he loved as much as life itself.

John met his lifetime companion Charlie Chiarelli in 1965 at the Avignon papal palace in France. John and Charlie’s relationship of love has done as much and possibly more, in bearing witness to the Christlikeness of homosexual love that he has spent his life writing and teaching about. By the time he published Taking a Chance on God in 1988 the landscape had changed decisively. Now John M Neill was offering another challenge: if religions were not welcoming to lesbian, gay and transgendered people, why should we be open to them?

With Freedom, Glorious Freedom in 1995, the subtitle tells all: ‘The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else’. In this book he describes much of what happened to him along the way, especially how his spiritual life was enriched by being gay and vice versa. He did not strike out against those who wronged him, but describes with remarkable equanimity how the same Jesuit “discernment of spirits” brought him to coming out and speaking out. It was the congruence of his position on the need to live with integrity between truth and appearance that propelled John McNeill to a mature, healthy self-acceptance and an equally mature, healthy insistence that the rest of the church and us do the same. It is this message that he shared with clients and audiences, this congruency between what you see and what you get that made him who he was.

What John became in a lifetime of devotion to the Gospel and dedication to its demand for justice for all was an honest man in love. This is in sharp contrast to so many of his confreres who love with fear or who just fear. He did not need to hide Charlie, pretend that he was celibate, nor choose between ministry and marriage. He had it all and deserved it all. John did for Catholicism what Stonewall did for the world; he fought back against those who would discriminate. His great work earned him the opprobrium of Rome, but it also put the rest of us in his debt as he pioneered a struggle that by all Christian values ought to be long over by now, yet sadly is not.

He says that his tombstone will read “Here lies a Gay Priest Who Took a Chance on God!” Cynics among us would probably have given up on God, Jesus, the Church, and the Jesuits, long ago had we not experienced John as friend and mentor. As we extend our deepest sympathy and prayer to his husband Charlie, we know John is amongst the saints forever and a day.

October 1, 2015