It is said that in South Florida you’ll find an ex-priest in every gay bar. Each has his own sad story of disappointment with his church, but there is one Roman Catholic priest who, at the age of 85 is not among them, and who has never stopped speaking and writing about the unconditional love of his God for gay people. In Hollywood, close to the Seminole casino, lives that priest, Father John J. McNeill, with Charlie Chiarelli, his devoted lover of 45 years.
On June 11th, Father McNeill, a veteran who served under General George S. Patton, was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp, and received the Purple Heart, will place a wreath in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery as an outstanding member of the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) when that organization celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. The event is part of the annual Washington DC gay pride weekend where Father McNeill will also be honored at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign (HCR) at a fund-raiser for the completion of Brendan Fay’s documentary about his life entitled “Uncommon Jesuit.” Lest he be given any time to rest in the course of that weekend, the Catholic LGBT organization Dignity will host a book-signing featuring Father McNeill, the founder of Dignity New York, who has written five books that constitute the definitive and authoritative voice of Catholic theology that compassionately and intelligently dismantles the homophobia of the bishops, cardinals and popes who would prefer him silent.
There must have been something in the holy water of the Catholic churches of Syracuse, New York that produced not only the maverick Father McNeill but also those stellar renegade anti-war priests, the Berrigan brothers. John, born into a traditional Irish clan, lost his mother at the age of four. His father then married his mother’s sister, according to custom, so that he and his siblings would be cared for. His stepmother/aunt, saddled with the obligation of raising her sister’s large family in a sexless marriage was bitter, and provided John with his first taste of the unreasonable authority that would mark the hierarchy’s treatment of his ministry to gay Catholics. “My stepmother wanted me to become a car mechanic. She did not like the fact that I loved to read. Every night she would inspect me for books that I might have taken out of the library. She insisted I apply to a trade school, but when the school saw the list of what I was reading, they refused to accept me, saying that their school was better suited to illiterates.”
There was thankfully another mitigating Irish tradition that kept John from becoming a mechanic, the need for each family to produce at least one priest or nun. His stepmother had been unsuccessful at recruiting any of his older brothers, but John, having returned from his military experience and having realized he was gay, jumped at the possibility, thinking that it would offer him an appropriate life. He took a vow of chastity to which he remained faithful for 14 years.
“I was in graduate school in Europe when I began to act out sexually and compulsively. I found myself at the point of suicide because of this. I was miserable and desperate. One night, I was about to throw myself into the Loire River, when a message came over me— maybe it was Jesus or the Holy Spirit—saying ‘Hang on. This doesn’t make sense to you now, but it will. This is preparation for your ministry’. When I returned to the states, I became a teacher and began to study homosexuality. I read an article by a fellow Jesuit who condemned homosexuality as a serious illness and said that homosexuals are guilty of spreading that illness to their partners. I began to write the opposite. I also decided that I was going to find myself a lover.”
In the course of the years to follow, Father McNeill built a landmark ministry to gay Catholics with the remarkable support of the superior of his order, Pedro Arupe, until a certain cardinal by the name of Ratzinger who is now Pope Benedict XVI engineered the deposition of Father Arupe and demanded that Father O’Neill be silenced and that his gay ministry be driven from the Catholic Church. In 1988, when Father McNeill refused, he was expelled from the Jesuits.
Today, Father McNeill writes a magnificent blog (johnmcneillspiritualtransformation.blogspot.com) that offers encouragement and hope for Catholics who fear that their church will always hate them. He feels that the Catholic Church is on the verge of another council that will be led by the laity who will transform the church, bringing it where the hierarchy is afraid to go. His message is informed by the highest level of scholarship and provides a strong antidote to the nonsense spewed by anti-gay Christian leaders. In his recent and fifth book about gay sexuality, Sex As God Intended: A Reflection On Human Sexuality As Play, Father McNeill shows us how the patriarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has gotten sex all twisted up with work, when really, God intends it to be play. He is also convinced that this sad patriarchy is in its final days, and that the revolutionary progress being made by the gay community will usher in a reborn and rectified Christianity restoring the feminine/masculine dialectic that is now sorely missing.
When I asked Father McNeill if he has ever felt himself to be outside the Catholic Church, his answer was simply “Never.”