John McNeill was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up to be a soldier who fought in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis but survived and came back to America to follow his call to priesthood. It seemed he would have a tranquil, quiet life of devotion to God – but his sexual orientation and a craving for justice and equality turned him into an activist, a pioneer and a Vatican pariah.
The documentary Taking a Chance on God tells McNeill’s life story, revealing the source of the Jesuit’s persistence and strength to fight for acceptance and peace. The film’s co-producer and co-editor Ilene Cutler has been following screenings all over the world and I caught up with her at the 21st Mix Festival of Culture of Diversity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
After watching the movie Cutler took questions from the audience. One man stood up and thanked her and John McNeill for the film. Teary-eyed, he told Ilene and the audience that like McNeill he had been expelled from his own church because of his sexuality. His boyfriend held his hand and asked if he was OK in a caring whisper.
It was a great moment for everyone, especially for Cutler. The project had been 10 years in the making and it seems this kind of reaction to the documentary is common.
“We get a strong response from many people who laugh hard and cry hard. And it’s very satisfying to me as a filmmaker to have humour and heart in a very important message about love and acceptance,” she said.
Although the film mostly focuses on McNeill’s battle to be accepted in a religious environment it also tells the story of a man who is more than his sexuality. He is a war veteran who was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, he is a scholar and a therapist, and his activism started during the Vietnam war. As a war veteran and a priest, his voice was strong and he relished spreading a message of non-violence.
So when the gay community rioted in Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, because of a police raid, McNeill decided to be open with himself and the community by becoming a voice in the LGBT rights movement.
In 1976 he published the ground-breaking study The Church and the Homosexual that defied the teaching methods of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. In response to the public uproar McNeill went on the Today Show and came out as a gay man to millions of people across America.
The Vatican told McNeill to shut up and not mention sexuality anymore.
But McNeill couldn’t stay quiet about something that affected him and so many others so intrinsically. To this day he makes himself accessible to people who need his help – Cutler even offered his email to people who wanted to talk to him
“He is very accessible. He wants to help anyone that he can still. He is 88 years old but still very sharp, very with it and very much involved.”
Because of this persistent involvement despite his age, Cutler and director Brendan Fay felt it was important to finish the movie before McNeill passed.
“He does ministry in Florida, he was able to see the movie in his home in Ft Lauderdale, in Miami, in New York, he was able to travel which is not so easy for him because of health problems. And this was far but he did go to Rome for the very first screening in Europe.
“And there he was, in the home of the pope, with a large Italian audience, crying and hugging and laughing and loving the film. For Brendan and I who worked very hard on making the film finished while he was still with us this was an incredible feeling of accomplishment that he got to be there to see this.”
On April 14th 1987 John’s superiors came to his apartment in New York City and expelled him from the Catholic Church by reading out a ‘Decree of Expulsion’ that had come directly from the Vatican.
In the film McNeill talks of that day with tears and hurt in his eyes, but there is no bitterness. Despite the expulsion McNeill continued his ministry, forging a life in God and LGBT activism at the same time.
But now the Vatican’s approach to sexuality this may be changing and Cutler tells me McNeill is excited about Pope Francis’s recent statements about the LGBT community.
“He keeps saying to me – can we… we need to talk to Pope Francis! And I do feel like he just needs to meet him and maybe there could be this radical change. He’s already so excited about what the pope has said – ‘Who am I to judge?’ you know? Just that one statement was such a big moment for John and for everyone. So he’s so hopeful that at the end of his life we can be on this precipice – is that too big of a word, precipice? – like on a mountain of possibility on the other side for change.”
His partner of 48 years Charles Chiarelli is a constant source of comfort and love for McNeill. It seems obvious to the Jesuit that the love between them cannot possibly be “an objective disorder” and “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” like his colleague Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in response to The Church and the Homosexual.
Cutler says the next step is to make the documentary more accessible for people who are more close minded.
“I think it’s so important. Every time I see the film with different audiences they say ‘Oh I wish my mother could see this or my father could see this’, so we are very hopeful that we can get it on television, public television where many more people can see it.
“If we could show it on television or other places that your average person – not just gay or gay allies – could see it I feel like it can have a big impact.”