John J. McNeill: ‘Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair. My Spiritual Journey’
Interview with Lidia Borghi, translated by Marius, 29 May 2011
My name is John J. McNeill. I am 85 years old and my memory is not the best. So I hope you will join me with a prayer to God’s Holy Spirit to help me. I have published an autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair; My Spiritual Journey. This book has not yet been published in Italian.
I was aware of my homosexual orientatiom since early childhood. Born into a devout Irish Catholic family, I accepted the roman catholic teaching and prayed for the grace to live a celibate life.
When I was 17, I enlisted in the US Army and went into combat against Germany. I was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and spent the last six months of the war as a prisoner of war. We prisoners were starved. On one occasion a slave laborer on a farm saw how close I was to starvation and risked his life to throw me a potato meant for the animals. I signaled him a thanks.
In response he made the sign of the cross. Here was a human who risked his life to feed me a stranger. I date my vocation to the priesthood to that moment. My constant prayer from that moment to this is ‘Lord grant me the grace to know what you want from me and grant me the courage to be able to do it!’
On my return to the USA after several months in the hospital I entered the Society of Jesus. In the early 1960s my superiors sent me to Belgium to Louvain University to complete a doctorate in philosophy on the philosophy of Maurice Blondel.
One of the most memorable statements by Blondel is “Our God dwells within us. The only way we can become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!”. During the four years I worked on my study of Blondel I began to compulsively act out my sexual needs. My shame and guilt became so powerful that I was seriously considering suicide. While in prayer I received a message from God that I should trust in God, that all the suffering I was undergoing will make sense in my future ministry.
Shortly after, in Avignon, I met my first gay lover. I had such a deep, joyous experience of gay love over the next three years, that I had to call into question the Church’s teaching on the evil of gay love relations. On my return to the USA I undertook several years of studying the moral meaning of homosexuality from all viewpoints: theological, scriptural and psychological. I published the results in my book, The Church and the Homosexual, arguing that since none of the reasons the Church gives for condemning homosexuality were any longer valid, the Church should reconsider its position by entering into dialogue with the Christian gay community to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through the experience of its gay members.
Shortly after my return from Europe I met Charles Chiarelli at a gay bar in Toronto named the “Saint Charles Bar.” Charles has been my lover and partner for last 45 years. I thank God daily for the blessing of Charles in my life. Without the constant experience of his love, my ministry to LBGT people would have been impossible.
The General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, ordered me to submit the manuscript to two sets of censors, one a group of moral theologians in the USA, the other a group of moral theologians in Rome. All the censors approved publication.
Fr. Arrupe sent an order to the New York Provincial of the Jesuits granting an official approval foe the publication of my book, The Church and the Homosexual and granting approval to publish the book with an Imprimi Potest.
Cardinal Ratzzinger reacted badly ordering the Jesuits to silence me on the subject of homosexuality and to deny me any teaching position. I went into training as a psychotherapist and began a career as psychotherapist to the LBGT community. I obeyed that order for nine years. After Pedro Arrupe had a massive stroke Pope John Paul dismissed him as general of the Jesuits giving Pedro’s granting an imprimi potest for my book as one of the reasons.
I became aware of the special grace God has given to me; helping me to mature spiritually, freeing me from the Church’s external authority and helping me to discern spirits, hearing what God is saying to me personally through my own experiences by the indwelling Holy Spirit. God made me aware that out of gratitude to God I must do whatever I can do to liberate my gay brothers and sisters from the wounds that pathological religion based on fear of God had inflicted on their psyches.
During the years of my practice of spiritual counseling and psychotherapy I discovered that most gay men and women could not heal their wounds in isolation but needed a support group to help them make the discernment of spirits that would allow them to mature spiritually. I remember at the first meeing of Dignity in New York making the statement “Dignity is not something we can give ourselves! But it is something we can help give each other!
But after nine years of seeing an increase in homophobia in the Vatican and a refusal of any effort at dialogue and witnessing the death and destruction of the AIDS plague I found I could no longer in conscience remain silent.
So I published my second book: Taking a Chance on God. (The same title as my documentary).
I hope this answers your questions:
Gay Dimensions to Spiritual Life. Reflections of Father John McNeil, National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1993
Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Ordination to the Priesthood. Reflections of Father John McNeill, August 23, 2009