A Tribute To Rev. John McNeill

As the first Jesuit pope visited the United States, the first openly gay Jesuit priest went to heaven last week. As John McNeill passed through the pearly gates, Saint Peter asked, “Where’s your partner, Charlie?” “Oh,” John said, a little absent-mindedly, “He’ll be along. He just didn’t think he should leave the country while Pope Francis might stop by.” 

John tried to begin his talks with a bit of humor, sometimes as offbeat or puzzling as that. 

“Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud,” his fellow Jesuit, Daniel Lord wrote in a “Prayer for Humility.” And it is with that glee that he insisted that his publisher keep his chosen title of his autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair. Both his editor and I tried to dissuade him from the title, lest it be misinterpreted, but he loved that that’s how a former professor characterized him: “There goes John J. McNeill, both feet firmly planted in midair.” 

John McNeill, S.J., not only wrote but published a book with the Roman Catholic Church’s imprimatur in 1976 that changed many of our lives in the LGBT Christian community, entitled, The Church and the Homosexual. It was the first such tome since Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition two decades earlier, and appeared more than a decade before John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, though McNeill credits Boswell’s as-yet-unpublished work as contributing to his own.

Soon McNeill’s book would be joined by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978) as prompters for the church to reconsider its views. 

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual seminarians of the 1970's were beside ourselves with hope that these books portended a change that would permit our ordinations and ministries in the church.

Having just purchased McNeill’s book, a friend of mine set it down with her school books on a table in Yale Divinity School’s refectory en route to the lunch line. She turned it face down so no one would see the title, then had second thoughts, and boldly turned it face up.

When she returned to the table, a fellow classmate, observing the title, said, “So, is John McNeill a homosexual?” “Why would you ask that?” she inquired, guessing more than she let on. “Well, if he’s homosexual, he’ll be biased.” I can’t recall if she said it or thought it, “Don’t you think a heterosexual would also be biased?” 

I had the privilege and honor to get to know John as we shared leadership of a number of retreats at Kirkridge, inhabiting rooms across the hall from one another. On many occasions there and elsewhere, I came to know his steadfast, lifelong partner Charlie Chiarelli. So I was saddened for both to hear of his death last week in Ft. Lauderdale, where they retired some years ago.

They have been and will be in my prayers. 

It so happens I am reading and using in my morning prayers The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, along with a companion text, Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. I am doing so in preparation for helping with a spiritual formation course on Ignatian Spirituality in November. 

Despite an accessible translation, I confess I have had to work hard at translating The Spiritual Exercises to meet my own spiritual needs. Reared a Baptist, I have regularly and often immediately observed and confessed personal sins, and as a Presbyterian and MCCer I learned also to confess corporate and systemic sins, and I don’t think rehearsing these would be spiritually helpful, except for the most obsessive-compulsive among us! And some of the recommended objects of devotion and reflection don’t match my progressive theology. But I do get Ignatius’s point, that there’s work to be done to eliminate all that gets in the way of God’s presence. 

The prayers in Hearts on Fire have been more helpful—for example, I am eager to do a personal retreat focusing on “Testament,” a guided meditation by the well-known Jesuit from India, Anthony de Mello, which is, as the book describes, “a creative alternative to examining one’s conscience.” 

So, as I prepared to write this, I looked for things I had underlined in my reading thus far that might speak to John’s life, and that’s how the quote about humor above came to be included.

But the quotes I want to use now are my own responses written in the margins! 

After reading a contemporary paraphrase of the Anima Christi by David Fleming, SJ, I wrote,  

Death is the final praise,
the final ecstasy
giving up one’s spirit
unto the Spirit. 

And after being challenged by Ignatius to contemplate hell, something I cannot believe except metaphorically, I wrote: 

Hell is the place of not feeling love.
It can be anywhere and everywhere.
Love gives rise to purpose, meaning, hope, fulfillment—heaven.
Sin is being unloving, unkind—to myself, to others. 

And then I added: "Grief is hell." 

John has now offered “the final praise.” He saved LGBT Christians from hell, and reminded us of God’s love, giving rise to the “purpose, meaning, hope, and fulfillment” of our movement, a taste of heaven, reminding us what sin truly is: “being unloving, unkind” to ourselves and to others. Our grief may be hell, especially for one as close as Charlie, but we pray in Joseph Tetlow, SJ’s version of the Anima Christi, “make my pain pregnant with power.” 

There were many times that John’s pain was “pregnant with power.” Being silenced by the church and then ousted from the Jesuits gave him the opportunity to fulfill a greater calling than he originally anticipated when, as a starving prisoner of war during WW II, a slave laborer, at risk of death from a vigilant SS guard, tossed him a potato, making the sign of the cross. 

John dated his priesthood from that moment.  

Thanks, John, in turn, for tossing me a potato.   

There will be a gathering at Kirkridge to celebrate John McNeill’s legacy, January 15-17, 2016

Tribute provided by Rev. Chris Glaser at Progressive Christian Reflections; Photo via New Ways Ministry

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