Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Ordination to the Priesthood
Reflections of Father John McNeill, August 23, 2009
It has been extremely painful for me over the past four decades to watch the Church I love self-destruct. I entered the Jesuit order in 1948 after serving in the combat infantry in WWII and spending the last six months of the war as a prisoner of war in Germany. I pronounced my vows as a Jesuit in 1950.
I was ordained to the priesthood at Fordham by Cardinal Spellman in 1959, making this year the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination. I had fifty wonderful years of Jesuit ministry, teaching philosophy and theology at Lemoyne College in Syracuse and later as professor of moral theology at Woodstock seminary in New York City.
Over all that time I was aware of being a gay man. As long as I lived in a loving community, I was able to be faithful to my vows. I had hoped to repress any need I had for sexual human companionship. While doing graduate studies at Louvain University my experience of loneliness led me to act out my sexual needs and seek human sexual companionship.
This failure on my part led me close to suicide. But at a critical moment while in prayer I received a consoling message from God that I should trust him. All the pain, shame and guilt I was undergoing God would make use of in a new ministry to which God would lead me. From that day to the present, my primary prayer has been: In te Dominum speravi. Non confundar in aeternam! (In you, Oh Lord, I place all my hope. I will not be let down for all eternity!)
Shortly after returning from Europe to teach at LeMoyne College, I began a research program into homosexuality from theological, scriptural and psychological perspectives. After two years I published the results of my research in a series of articles in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review entitled “The Christian Male Homosexual.” These articles received an excellent reception. My fellow Woodstock faculty member, Avery Dulles (later Cardinal Dulles), recommended that I major them into a book.
On New Years Eve of 1966 I met my lifetime partner Charles Chiarelli at a gay bar in Toronto called the Saint Charles bar. I could not have had a lifetime ministry to GLBT people if it had not been for my first hand experience of the goodness and joy of a loving gay relationship with Charlie for the past 43 years. Charlie and I returned to Toronto to be legally married in September, 2008.
In 1972 together with Bob Carter, S.J. and other priests and lay men I helped found the New York City chapter of Dignity, a support group for gay and lesbian Catholics whose objective was to bring the message of God’s love and acceptance to Catholic gays and lesbians.
In 1976, after years of review and censorship of my manuscript “The Church and the Homosexual,” I finally received an “imprimi potest” (permission to publish) from Father General Pedro Arrupé after he personally read the manuscript and I proceeded to publication. It was the first book to pose a direct challenge to church teaching on homosexuality, arguing that gay people were created that way by God and that their love relations could be good and even holy relations. That was a euphoric moment.
The book’s appearance received headlines in the New York Times. I was invited to be the featured interview on the Today Show, which was Tom Brokaw’s first day as host. For almost one year I traveled the country, appearing on innumerable television and radio talk shows, helping to found Dignity chapters, and giving lectures and workshops on the Theology of Homosexuality. I began a series of retreats on the theme “Experiencing God’s love” for lesbian and gay Christians at Kirkridge, retreats that continued twice a year for the next twenty five years – to a packed house every time.
But my euphoria was short lived. Toward the end of that year, I was invited by the theology faculty at Xavier University in Cincinatti to give a workshop on the theology of homosexuality. When I arrived at the airport I was surrounded by reporters who wanted to know my response to a press release from Archbishop Bernadine decrying my invitation, accusing me of misleading the public into thinking that the Church had changed or was about to change its teaching on homosexuality. That night the lecture hall was surrounded by conservative Catholics praying the rosary and accusing me of defending sodomy.
A few months later the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith ordered the Jesuit order to silence me and forbid me to speak or write on the issue of homosexuality. I obeyed that order for nine years, until my dismissal from the Jesuit order. The Congregation claimed that they were acting as a response to a request from the American bishops and quoted the press release of Archbishop Bernadine. Coincidentally, right at this time Bernadine was accused of sexual impropriety with a young man who later withdrew the accusation.
Several years later, Pedro Arrupé was deposed as General by Pope John Paul II and an inquisitor Fr. Dezza was made General by papal fiat. One of the reasons given for that action was Arrupé’s approval of my publication of “The Church and the Homosexual.”
For those nine years I was able to continue my ministry of retreats and psychotherapy, but could not speak or write for the media. In that period, the Vatican became more and more homophobic. They classified homosexual orientation as an “objective disorder” and even on one occasion justified gay bashing.
They continued to condemn all gay sexual activity as seriously sinful! They led the political opposition to gay rights and gay marriage throughout the world. They ordered adoption agencies to close rather than allow gay couples to adopt. And most recently they closed seminaries and the priesthood to anyone with a homosexual orientation.
Even after the sexual abuse crisis they refused to allow a married priesthood and denied ordination to all women. The result is a rapid disappearance of celibate priests and a new upsurge of lay ministry.
I continued to pray for divine guidance concerning the order to silence in the public media. The AIDS crisis was in full swing. I felt I could no longer remain silent in good conscience. In 1986 the Vatican gave me an order I could not obey in good conscience: I was ordered to give up all ministry to LGBT people.
When I informed General Hans Kolvenbach of that decision, he flew to New York and met me at Fordham University. He told me that if I continued in my gay ministry he was under orders from the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger to dismiss me from the Jesuits. He also told me how much he admired my ministry and gave me his blessing.
A few months later I published an article calling for full acceptance of LBGT people in all the christian churches in The Christian Century. General Kolvenbach turned over the process of my expulsion to Cardinal Hamer, head of the Congregation of Religious. The final decree of my dismissal from the Jesuits was issued on April 13, 1987.
That decree paradoxically freed me to fully enter once again into the ministry Father Arrupé had assigned me to. From then to the present day, I continue to give retreats and lectures to LGBT Christians. I also was freed to publish once again. In 1988 I published “Taking A Chance On God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and their Lovers, Families and Friends.”
In 1995 I published “Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else.” In 1998 I published my autobiography “Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey.”
Finally in 2008 I published “Sex As God Intended: A Reflection On Human Sexuality As Play.” This book includes a festschrift of 13 essays celebrating my life and work. (A synopsis of these publications and reviews can be found on my web page; www.johnjmcneill.com).
Although I remain a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, awaiting its transformation once again into an instrument of the Holy Spirit, I have been welcomed into the community of love and support at Sunshine Cathedral, a Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Lauderdale. Charlie and I are deeply grateful to that community for providing us a fulfilling and spiritual home.
Brendan Fey, a producer of the documentary “Saint of 9/11,” has been working for four years now on a documentary on my life and ministry called “Uncommon Jesuit.” The documentary is ready for final editing and, if Brendan receives sufficient funding, should be ready for its premiere in the near future.
* Father John McNeill is a pioneer in the gay liberation movement. John helped found Dignity New York City, a spiritual support group for gay and lesbian Catholics, in 1972. In 1976 he published The Church and the Homosexual, the first major theological critique of traditional church condemnation of lesbian and gay relations. In 2007 he was awarded The National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce lifetime achievement award “for leading the way in understanding that being gay is a gift from God.”