LGBTQ South Florida

The Rev. John J. McNeill, Jesuit priest who became famed LGBT activist, dies at 90

The Rev. John J. McNeill in a scene from the documentary about his life, ‘Taking A Chance On God.’
The Rev. John J. McNeill in a scene from the documentary about his life, ‘Taking A Chance On God.’

The Rev. John J. McNeill, a Jesuit priest who co-founded Dignity, a group for gay and lesbian Catholics, died Tuesday night in a Fort Lauderdale hospice, three weeks after his 90th birthday.

“He always liked being acknowledged, that he made a difference,” said the Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins of LGBT-oriented Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, where McNeill was a member.

On Wednesday, Sunshine Cathedral posted on McNeill’s Facebook page:

“It is with great sadness that Sunshine Cathedral announces the departure of John J. McNeill from this experience of life to the next. Father John made his transition last night. A Jesuit, a scholar, an activist, a prophet who proclaimed God’s unconditional love for LBGT people, Rev Dr John McNeill touched countless lives and inspired many ministries. He was a blessing to this world for 90 years and he will be missed. We extend love to his faithful spouse Charlie and to all who counted Father John a friend or mentor. A courageous and indefatigable laborer in God’s vineyard, Father John challenged Catholic hierarchy and cultural homophobia while affirming the goodness of human bodies, relationships, and sexuality. He was a hero and his memory will bless all who hold it.”

In 2012, McNeill gave an interview to the Miami Herald before the South Florida premiere of a documentary about his life, Taking A Chance On God.

“I always knew I was gay. I tried to be closeted, but that didn’t succeed. I just abstained from sexual life,” McNeill said, adding that the film documented “my partner Charlie and our 46-year love affair. The message is that God loves gay lovers and approves of them.”

The Vatican didn’t approve of McNeill breaking his vow of celibacy or of his longtime romance with Charles Chiarelli.

“I ignored that prohibition,” McNeill said a day before Taking a Chance on God was screened at the 2012 Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. “I’ve had a lover the last 46 years. He’ll be with me tomorrow night [at the screening].”

New York filmmaker Brendan Fay, an Irish-born gay Catholic, began interviewing McNeill for the film in 2002.

“John is often a hidden figure. An unknown pioneer,” Fay told the Herald in 2012. “There are not many who are aware of the dramatic impact and significance he had on the movement for change in society and the church in the early ’70s.”

McNeill grew up in upstate New York. He served during World War II and spent six months in a German POW camp. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1948 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1959, according to his website.

In 1972, McNeill founded Dignity/New York. “I was bringing a message that God brought to me,” he told the Herald. “God’s love is universal and includes both gay and straight people.”

McNeill was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Under orders from the Vatican, the Jesuits expelled McNeill in 1987.

“He wasn’t dismissed because he was a homosexually oriented person. He was dismissed because he wouldn’t stop being a leader in the [LGBT] movement. He wrote books that were contrary to the generally accepted Catholic teaching,” said his friend since 1955, the Rev. Dan Mulhauser, alumni chaplain emeritus of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. “He felt a prior calling in the gay movement, so that’s what he did.”

McNeill spent his final years living and working in the Fort Lauderdale area.

Among his books: The Church and the Homosexual (1976); Taking a Chance On God: Liberating Theology for Gays and Lesbians, Their Lovers, Friends and Families (1988); and his memoirs, Both Feet Firmly Planted In Midair: My Spiritual Journey (1988).

Watkins said he read several of McNeill’s books while he was in college and heard him speak in the 1990s.

“It was a transformative sermon,” Watkins said.

Sunshine Cathedral has established the Father John J. McNeill Legacy Fund, “to provide support for the preservation and dissemination of his writings, lectures, and teachings,” according to the church website.

McNeill is survived by Chiarelli and nephew Timothy J. McNeill. Funeral services are pending.

Steve Rothaus: 305-376-3770, @SteveRothaus

Legacy fund established

The Father John J. McNeill Legacy Fund is maintained at the Sunshine Cathedral MCC – Sunshine Cathedral Foundation.

Checks can be mailed to:

Father John J. McNeill Legacy Fund, c/o Sunshine Cathedral Foundation, 1480 SW Ninth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33315

Make checks payable to: John J. McNeill Legacy Fund

Online contributions: Father John J. McNeill Legacy Fund

For more information please contact Timothy McNeill at tmcn12@gmail.com

For more information on Father John please visit http://johnjmcneill.com.

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