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Even as gay civil rights continue to move forward in America and across the world, gay Catholics remain at odds with the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy over their relationships. Fay's 2011 documentary, "Taking a Chance on God," making its New York City debut Saturday, tells the story of one of America's pioneers for Catholic gay equality -- Irish-American priest and author John McNeill.
McNeill, 86, was one of the leaders of New York's gay liberation movement in the 1970s and 80s. He helped found the "Dignity" movement, an equal-rights organization for GLBT Catholics that met in churches throughout the 70s and 80s. McNeill was one of the first Catholic priests to call for equal rights for lesbian and gay individuals, and an advocate for compassion during the AIDS epidemic, in the Reagan era. Although he was condemned by the Catholic Church and expelled from his religious order, he continued to devote himself to the cause of GLBT dignity and inclusion in the Catholic Church.
"He would often tell me about nights spending dancing jigs and reels in their kitchen in Buffalo," Fay said. John's parents met at an Irish dance, and Aunt Katie was a prominent accordion player at clubs and bars in the city's Irish community. Just a few years after John's birth, his mother died and he was raised by his father and aunt.
Eventually, McNeill and his sister Sheila entered religious orders, McNeill becoming a Jesuit after returning home from his combat service in Gen. George Patton's Third Army during World War II and a six-month stint in a Nazi POW camp. Fay said, "It was very common for that generation in the 1950s and 60s to enter religious vocations, as a way to serve one's community." McNeill's generation contributed to all-time peaks for Catholic Mass attendance and seminary enrollment in America, with Mass attendance peaking in the late '50s, and seminary enrollments in the mid-60s, according to data from The Gallup Organization. Vocations diminished dramatically in the decades that followed.
McNeill had been raised a Catholic, but he knew he was gay, even as a young man. He chose not to speak about it until after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, when the "gay liberation" movement took off in New York and soon across the country. Here in New York, McNeill helped form "Dignity," which included many prominent gay Irish Catholic clergy, including fellow priests Bernard Lynch, Mychal Judge, and Dan McCarthy.
The book was published internationally to great acclaim. McNeill also made headlines by publicly coming out on NBC News' The Today Show, even though his continued work put him at risk of ecclesiastical censure.
McNeill was eventually ordered not to speak or publish on the issue of homosexuality by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). McNeill remained publicly silent on the issue for 9 years. Meanwhile, said Fay, "he was receiving calls from other priests, like Daniel Berrigan," who urged him to stay in the Jesuit order, saying that "he was needed at this moment in history."
In 1987, the Jesuits expelled McNeill from the order by Vatican fiat. While he remains a priest, the Church has removed from McNeill the canonical right to exercise his priesthood. He still continues what Fay called an "independent" ministry, celebrating Mass for Dignity and other faith communities, leading retreats and ministering and counseling individuals locally and worldwide, through the Internet.
After Fay completed "Saint of 9/11," he said he began getting calls from people "begging me to tell John's story." He has since come to know John, as he says, "as a friend, a mentor and a hero." "With this film, I wanted to unwrap the heart of John McNeill a bit," Fay said. "I also see it as a chance to pass on Irish gay heritage through my art."
"Taking a Chance on God" mixes archival footage of World War II, the Vietnam War, the 1970s and 1980s gay liberation movement, and interviews with notable gay priests and pastors, including Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, Catholic cleric Bernard Lynch and award-winning Catholic gay rights activist Kate Clinton. It is a stirring documentation of the Catholic gay rights movement, and a loving tribute to one of its leading voices, a man who has spent his life speaking of God's love for all.
The film will screen June 16 at Chelsea's School of Visual Arts' Silas Theatre. Fay, along with McNeill and McNeill's longtime partner, Charlie Chiarelli, will participate in a Q&A after the screening. For tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com. WG
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and and produced by Joe Gannon.Copyright © 2012 by Dan Marrin and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2012, GAR Media.