The Catholic Church needed Rev. John J. McNeill much more than he needed that Church, but throughout his life – he died at the age of 90 on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - he never stopped loving a Church that did not love him back.
McNeill, through his wise and compassionate books about gay spirituality, showed me and other former priests how to deliver a gay-friendly Jesus who transcends the crusty and judgmental hierarchy strangling contemporary Catholicism.
He seemed to have an instinctive sense of his God-given vocation within the Church as a prophet whose robes were not cut from the scarlet silk of the bishops and cardinals who condemned him, but rather the rough sheepskin of the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist, who said, “I am a voice crying out in the desert.” (John 1:23)
Try as it might to silence McNeill’s voice – and those who tried to do so included Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) – the Catholic hierarchy could not keep his books out of the hands of those who most needed them: the lost, disenfranchised and anguished gay Catholics who sought assurance that God did not really hate them.
Five years ago, I visited McNeill and Charlie Chiarelli, his partner of 49 years, at their home in Hollywood. I was there to discuss his newly published fifth book, “Sex As God Intended: A Reflection On Human Sexuality,” for a review in SFGN. Actually, I was there to meet someone whose experience of Catholicism was not unlike my own. I wanted to see how another gay married ex-priest navigates his decades.
I wanted to see the interaction between him and Charlie. I suppose I wanted a glimpse into what my future might be like and to see in a similar couple, a healthy dynamic between priest and partner. Would I find McNeill to be bitter about having been booted out of the Jesuit order? Angry? Morose? Would Chiarelli be supportive, patient and understanding of a partner whose complicated priestly vocation never really withered?
I’m afraid I stayed with them that day much longer than might have been polite, but they were lively, intelligent, engaging and gracious gentlemen. I left feeling grateful that they lived close by, and I was always happy to encounter them in Fort Lauderdale and also in New York City. (McNeill was the founder of Dignity New York, the now marginalized organization of gay Catholics, and he returned there for events related to the 2010 documentary film honoring his life, “Taking A Chance On God.”) In the elevator of my condominium, encountering neighbors who belonged to AVER, (American Veterans For Equal Rights) I learned how deeply respected McNeill was not only as a compassionate gay priest, but as a WW2 army veteran and POW.
As media changed from print to online, the elderly McNeill did not accept dust. He had a blog, a respected voice on Facebook and a Twitter account. I don’t think he ever lost hope that the Catholic Church would eventually catch up with him and invite him back into its sanctuaries. Now that he is gone, I envision him in conversation with Jesus who is assuring him that he was right all along, and tossing him the keys to the only church that really matters.