Continuing their series of posts on Christianity and homosexuality, Geoffrey and Mika recently attended the screening of a documentary film, Taking a Chance on God: the Story of Pioneer Gay Priest John McNeill, at Saint Paul University here in Ottawa. This event was organized by Ewelina Frackowiak, who runs a local Catholic gay and lesbian group. The film maker, Brendan Fay, was on hand to introduce the film and take questions from the audience following the screening. It was a most interesting story related in the documentary, that of the faith, life and work of John J. McNeill.
The story of John J. McNeill goes to show that support for the civil rights of gay people can come from what many would see is a most unlikely source. A devout Roman Catholic, he opted for religious life, becoming a Jesuit priest in 1959, he undertook graduate studies in Belgium at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, earning a doctorate in 1964. It was during his graduate studies that he found love in a relationship with another man and began to form his arguments concerning the re-evaluation of homosexuality from the Roman Catholic moral and theological point of view. Following his graduation, he embarked on an academic career as a Jesuit. His area of interest was Christian ethics, particularly sexual ethics. In 1974, he co-founded the New York City chapter of Dignity, a group for Catholic gays and lesbians. He published, with approval from the Vatican, a book, The Church and the Homosexual in 1976. The book attracted a lot of attention and the author appeared on several talk shows such as Today and The Phil Donahue Show. One year later, he was ordered by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith not to publicly discuss homosexuality. McNeill observed this silence for nine years but privately ministered to gays and lesbians, offering psychotherapy, workshops, lectures and retreats. In 1986, he broke his silence following the publication by the Vatican of the “Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” which defined homosexuality as “an objective disorder” and “a more or less tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” McNeill was ordered to cease his ministry to homosexuals, and his refusal to do so led to his expulsion from the Jesuit order in April 1987. Since then, he has continued his ministry and written several books on spirituality for gays and lesbians.
After the film, an acquaintance, Marc Caissy, discussed the impact of McNeill on his life. He talked about what a revolutionary work it was and how it provided a much needed affirmation of being a gay Catholic. He also talked about some of his experiences with writing a master’s thesis about Dignity in 1979. Apparently, the copy in Saint Paul University went missing only a few months after it was catalogued! Fortunately, Marc has his own copy and he intends to publish it online in the near future.
The film maker, Brendan Fay, then talked about his experiences in making the film. He emphasized that in making this film how important it is to tell people’s stories which otherwise would not get told. For example, in the film, McNeill tells the story of the harsh treatment he experienced while held as a prisoner of war in Germany toward the end of the Second World War, and how an act of kindness and piety from a Polish slave labourer who risked his own life in sharing a potato inspired him to take up religious life.
Posted by Geoffrey and Mika