A new documentary on the pioneering life of Father John McNeill is now ready for distribution. To find out more about the film and contribute to its dissemination, click here.
Taking A Chance on God
A documentary profile of John McNeill, pioneer gay priest.
Taking A Chance on God tells the story of 85 year old John McNeill, Catholic priest and pioneering advocate for LGBT human rights. The film traces his life from a childhood in Buffalo, his months as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, call to priesthood and his passion for justice and equality. In the 1960s with fellow Jesuit Dan Berrigan he was a herald for peace and nonviolence at the height of the Vietnam war. After the Stonewall riots of June 1969 he became a voice of liberation for gay people. In 1972 he co-founded the gay and lesbian Catholic group Dignity NY. In 1976 he published the groundbreaking classic The Church and the Homosexual and his “coming out" on the Today Show before millions in 1976 was historic. In the 1980’s he proclaimed hope for the gay community in the face of despair and paralysis during the AIDS crisis.
On April 14 1987 Jesuit superiors arrived at the apartment of Fr John McNeill at 98th Street in NYC. In English and Latin they read the Vatican “Decree of Expulsion”. McNeill, Jesuit priest of 40 years, was expelled from his religious community because of disobedience to Vatican authorities. He questioned Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality. This was the final act of an expulsion drama begun a decade prior in 1977. In 1983 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith sent a further order of silence. When Cardinal Ratzinger issued the October 1986 letter on the “Pastoral Care of Homosexuals” defining the lives of gay and lesbian persons as “objective disorder” and “intrinsic evil," Dignity chapters were expelled from Catholic parishes. It was the height of the AIDS crisis a time of pain and anger. John broke the Vatican imposed silence he endured for 9 years and refused to end his public ministry among the gay community. In conscience, John wrote to superiors from Gethsamani Abbey, he could no longer be silent. He was dismissed finally in the words of the decree because of his “pertinacious disobedience”. Unembittered, John continued his ministry as a therapist, a retreat director, and in his writing. On the road or from his blog John continues to be that voice today proclaiming same sex love as holy and encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons around the world!
In the film McNeill is a natural storyteller whether at a kitchen table or in his homilies and retreats. He details his life as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany and the survival he owes to the kindness of a stranger. He chronicles the early days of lesbian and gay liberation with the stories from the Gospel. McNeill inspires some and frustrates others with his constant spirit of hope and trust. His scholarly books and articles, translated in many languages, reflect his brilliant mind and wisdom. There is a tenderness to the man easily felt in his warm and welcoming embrace. He is serious psychotherapist and theologian, but he lightens up with a glass of wine and easily laughs and sings.
Wherever he goes John introduces and gives thanks for Charles Chiarelli his partner of 45 years.Taking A Chance on God is also a story of the “love that dare not speaks its name”. It is very much a story of the heart, of John McNeill’s love for his Church, his gay community, his Jesuit brothers and his beloved Charlie. With honesty and tenderness, he reflects on the challenges and joys of their relationship. Theologian, Mary Hunt, says that McNeill differs from most priests because “John is an honest gay man!" Taking A Chance on God gives a rare look into the heart of a gay man’s journey as he wrestles with life as a Catholic priest and a gay man.
Interviewees include bishops, fellow Jesuits, leaders from the US, Canada and Ireland, activists, friends and family. Among them are: Rev. Nancy Wilson, Leader of The Metropolitan Community Church, Dr. Mary E. Hunt, feminist theologian, Bishop Gene Robinson, comedian Kate Clinton, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Fr. Robert Carter SJ (co-founder of Dignity 1972 and in 1973 of the NLGTF), Fr Bernard Lynch from Co. Clare, Ireland and Andy Humm, journalist for Gay USA. Critics of John McNeill are also interviewed: Msgr. William Smith of St. Joseph's Seminary and Fr. Jim Llyod CSP of “Courage” .