Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering John McNeill

John McNeill was the spiritual director to an entire generation of queer Catholics. He was a prophet, a pioneer, an activist, a scholar, a friend and a spouse. . . . He was a proud gay man.

I was saddened to hear last night of the death of John McNeill, a scholar and activist who, in his tireless proclamation of God's unconditional love for LBGT people, inspired and empowered countless lives. He was without doubt a prophet of his time, one who challenged the Roman Catholic hierarchy and cultural homophobia through his steadfast affirmation and celebration of the goodness of the human body, relationships and sexuality.

Following is a statement released by DignityUSA about the life and legacy of John McNeill.

DignityUSA mourns the passing of John J. McNeill, a seminal figure in the history of the 46-year-old organization of LGBT Catholics and allies, as well as the broader LGBT civil rights movement. McNeill died on the evening of September 22 at the age of 90 in hospice care in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the presence of his devoted spouse and partner of 49 years, Charles Chiarelli.

A former Jesuit priest with a doctorate in philosophy from Louvain University in Belgium, McNeill helped inspire the founding of Dignity with articles in theological journals in the 1960s that for the first time challenged Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality from an authoritative theological and scholarly perspective. In 1972, he convened the meeting that led to the founding of Dignity’s New York City chapter. His groundbreaking, bestselling 1976 book, The Church and the Homosexual, was an international sensation that landed McNeill on the Today show and sparked widespread debate. Subsequent books, including Taking a Chance on God and Freedom, Glorious Freedom, extended McNeill’s discussion more deeply into the pastoral and personal realms of LGBT Catholic and Christian experience.

In 1987, McNeill was expelled from the Jesuits after nearly four decades for refusing to be silenced by the Vatican on LGBT issues. The same year, he was Grand Marshal of New York City’s LGBT Pride March. Until recent years, he pursued a multi-faceted vocation as a psychotherapist, spiritual director, retreat leader, and author, with a constant focus on the needs of the LGBT community. In addition, along with Fr. Mychal Judge, he founded The Upper Room AIDS Ministry, an outreach for homeless persons with AIDS in Harlem. Through these activities, he offered hope and healing — at times literally life-saving — to countless people around the globe.

Born and raised in Buffalo, McNeill entered the U.S. Army in 1942 and became a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany — an experience that for him was profoundly spiritual and led him to enter the Jesuits in 1948. Ordained in 1959, he taught philosophy and theology at Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, and Le Moyne College, where he was a noted peace advocate during the Vietnam War.

A powerful presence at nearly every Dignity convention and in many Dignity communities until recent years, McNeill was presented with DignityUSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. In 2011, he traveled to Rome, where, along with European LGBT leaders, he delivered a letter to then-Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. The letter asked for dialogue and urged Church leadership to speak out against the violence, injustice, and discrimination experienced by LGBT people around the world. In 2012, McNeill was the subject of Taking a Chance on God, a documentary film produced and directed by Dignity member Brendan Fay that highlights his role as priest, gay man, activist, author, spouse, and pioneer of the international LGBT civil rights movement.

DignityUSA also shares the following compilation of testimonials.

John was really the first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement. Every DignityUSA president has consulted him for insights into the emerging issues of the Catholic LGBT community. His groundbreaking bravery in daring to question official Church doctrine was truly liberating to so many people. The Church and the Homosexual was really the ‘coming-out’ Bible for LGBT Catholics. And Freedom, Glorious Freedom was incredibly important in helping to shape an empowered Catholicism not just for LGBT people, but for all. We offer our deepest condolences to Charlie [pictured with John above right in 2012] and commend him for his faithful companionship and care-giving to John over so many years.

– Marianne Duddy-Burke
DignityUSA Executive Director

I first became aware of John McNeill at the 1985 DignityUSA Convention. He spoke to us about his book and challenged us by his mere presence to join him in asserting with sincerity and courage, that God loved us in our identity and our sexuality and that we could remain faithful and whole in the presence of our God. A prophet, perhaps ahead of his time, whose message liberated many of us; a man of courage who, following his conscience, spoke truth to power and showed us how to do the same. He will be missed on earth, welcomed with the saints in heaven, leaving with us the message that living rooted in the Gospel is the only way to be whole and holy. May God help us make his legacy a reality in our work and in our lives.

– Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogues
DignityUSA President

When [I was] asked to step up to leadership, I was not an easy sell. The state of the organization had been quite stressful during my previous five years on the board. I was between jobs and feeling quite stressed myself. The needs seemed too great and I felt too weak. John called me to talk. He told me he believed I had the gifts required at the moment. He countered my instinctive Catholic rush to take it all along with a reminder that it was not my job to "save" Dignity. John said, "Just bring your gifts to the table and trust the Spirit will provide the rest. She has seen us through many trials. If we are meant to survive we will. But that is to be determined by forces bigger than any of us." I immediately felt the perceived "burden" lift. He reframed it for me. I was able to say yes. John was right – the Spirit has provided for our needs in abundance. John got us past a major sticking point with the wisdom he has shared with me then – as he has in countless ways thru our journey to the Promised Land.

– Mark Matson
Former DignityUSA President

My recollections of John go back to 1973 in Hollywood. His contributions to the equality and justice of the LGBT community are legendary. We all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

– Pat McArron
Former DignityUSA President

John McNeill was a giant in the LGBT Catholic movement. He taught us all to take risks and trust in the Holy Spirit. In one of his later gatherings, he believed the Holy Spirit was always at work. He looked forward to the day the church officials would recognize the gifts of LGBT people and women.

– Lewis Speaks-Tanner
Incoming DignityUSA President
and member of Dignity/New York

Meanwhile, at Bondings 2.0, the blog of New Ways Ministry, Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo share their thoughts on the life and legacy of John McNeill.

John McNeill was a dear friend and colleague. He was a true pioneer in whose footsteps so many of us followed. I learned so much from his research and writing, but I learned even more from personal interactions with him, by witnessing the passion and human concern he had for every LGBT person he encountered.

– Jeannine Gramick
Co-Founder, New Ways Ministry

John McNeill was a good friend of New Ways Ministry for many years. He had a rare mixture of both a great heart and a great mind. His “academic” theological work was informed not only by philosophical principles and logic, but by awareness of deep and real human needs. It is not an overstatement to say that any of the pastoral, political, theological, and practical advances that LGBT Catholics have made in recent years could only have been brought about because of John’s ground-breaking work.

– Francis DeBernardo
Executive Director, New Ways Ministry

In remembrance of John and his pioneering work, his family has established The John J. McNeill Legacy Fund to provide support for the preservation and dissemination of his writings, lectures and teachings. An immediate goal of this fund will be the digitization of his correspondence, audio/visual recordings and other archival works so that they will be available for scholarly research as well as to continue the work to which he devoted his life of inspiring and empowering the worldwide gay and lesbian community.

To learn more and/or make a donation, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
The Rev. John J. McNeill, Jesuit Priest Who Became Famed LGBT Activist, Dies at 90 – Steve Rothaus (Miami Herald, September 23, 2015).
"Patron Saint" of LGBT Catholics, John J. McNeill, 90, Dies – Thomas C. Fox (National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2015).
Reflecting on the Life and Ministry of John McNeill, Gay Theology Pioneer – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, September 24, 2015).
RIP John McNeill: Pioneering Gay Priest and Patron Saint of LGBT Catholics – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, September 24, 2015).
Father John McNeill, Gay Catholic Pioneer, Dead at 90 – Andy Humm (Gay City News, September 25, 2015).
John McNeill, Priest Who Pushed Catholic Church to Welcome Gays, Dies at 90 – Margalit Fox (The New York Times, September 25, 2015).
Rev. John McNeill Dies at 90; Gay Priest and Author Expelled by Jesuits – Elaine Woo (The Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2015).

UPDATES: The Spiritual Legacy of John J. McNeill – Mary E. Hunt (Beacon Broadside, October 5, 2015).
Jesuit John McNeill Changed the Conversation on Gays – Alexander Santora (The Jersey Journal, December 28, 2015).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
John McNeill's Message to the US Bishops: "Enough!"
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
"Catholic Harvey Milk," Fr. Robert Carter, Dies at 82

Image: John McNeill pictured with (from left) Dan McCarthy, Bernard Lynch and Robert Carter at a gay pride march in the early 1980s.

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