New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award
John J. McNeill
Bridge Building Award Recipient – 2009
Delivered on October 4, 2009
Desmond Tutu Center, New York City, New York
I want to express my gratitude to Jeannine Gramick, SL., Frank DeBernardo
and the Board and Staff of New Ways Ministry for honoring me with the Bridge Builder Award.
Let us pause for a moment of silent prayer and invite the Holy Spirit to be with us here in this room and touch our heats with God’s love!
Meister Eckhardt once wrote: If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was one heartfelt “thank you, God,” that would suffice for salvation!
And Ignatius Loyola in the preamble to his spiritual exercises wrote: “All the good things in this world belong to us, but the glory belongs to God.” The way we make sure that the glory goes to God, Ignatius pointed out, was by a continuous spirit of gratitude.
I am aware that the Holy Spirit has been with me always over the past 84 years. I would like to reflect with you on some dramatic moments in my life and ministry when the action of the Holy Spirit was palpable and express my debt of gratitude and hope that you will search for parallel moments in your life.
One of those special gifts of the Holy Spirit over the past few weeks was reading the memoirs of Archbishop Weakland: “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church,” an extraordinary book by a gay member of the hierarchy, which throws incredible hope-filled light on the future of the church. I emailed Archbishop Weakland and asked him if he had a message for this audience. Rembert wrote to me that his message would be simple. “Be not afraid. Cast out into the deep!”
My text for these remarks today is the words ascribed to Jesus in Mark 12 quoting Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”
The first moment I want to recall goes back 65 years. Having enlisted in the army when I was 17, I went into combat with General Patton’s third army on the border of Germany. My infantry unit managed to cross the border. The German army counterattacked. My unit found itself surrounded by German tanks. I remember taking off my T-shirt to signal my surrender. A German soldier was assigned to march me back to a prisoner collection point. I was certain that the guard intended to shoot me. As we walked down a country lane we came upon a roadside shrine with a crucifix. I signaled the guard that I wanted to say a prayer. As he leaned on his rifle and smoked one of my camel cigarettes, I knelt to pray. I remember making an act of contrition. And then saying:” Lord I am only 18; I am too young to die!” Well, here I am at 84 still in decent health, so that prayer was certainly answered.
The next event occurred while I was a kriegsgefangenen (prisoner of war). The Germans starved the American prisoners. I went down to 90 lbs and looked like a skeleton. One day we were sent out to a farm to chop wood where the SS were raising mink. A slave laborer from Eastern Europe was mixing a mash of vegetables for the animals. I could not take my eyes off the food. While the guard’s back was turned, the slave laborer took a potato from the mash and threw it to me. The guard would have killed him if he saw him feed a prisoner. I made a gesture of thanks and the slave laborer’s response was to make the sign of the cross. That action was like a flash of lightning on a dark night. I date my vocation to religious life to that moment. Here was a man who had the courage to risk his life to feed a total stranger. And he found that courage in his faith and trust in Jesus Christ. I wanted to be able to imitate that man. My prayer from that moment to this is: Lord, grant me the grace to know what your will for me is and grant me the courage to be able to do it.
The next memorable moment was my discovery of the philosophical writings of Maurice Blondel while studying theology at Woodstock seminary. Fr. Sponga, the rector, gave a seminar on Blondel. A whole new world of philosophical and theological thinking opened up to me and filled me with joy and hope. I was set on fire by Blondel’s opening words in his book, Philosophy of Action: “I find myself condemned to life, condemned to death, condemned to eternity, Unless I can choose life, choose death, choose eternity , I am not.” God created us free and will always respect that freedom! I will never forget reading this line in Blondel’s philosophy of action: “Our God dwells within us and the only way we can become one with that God, is by becoming one with our authentic self!” (One of my deepest regrets is not having done more to make Blondel’s thought available to an American audience. My nephew Tim McNeill the publisher of Dalai Lama’s Wisdom Press is in the process of putting my doctorate thesis, from Louvain University published under the title, The Blondelian Synthesis, on the computer.)
One of the next striking manifestations of the Holy Spirit in my life occurred at one of the darkest moments in my life. I was in France doing graduate studies. In my loneliness, I began to compulsively act out sexually. I was so filled with shame, guilt and self-loathing that I began to contemplate suicide. Right at that moment I felt I heard the Spirit assuring me that I should continue to trust God; that somehow he would make use of this moment in my future ministry. I felt peace flood back into my heart. I did not fully understand what happened until years later when I first read Henri Nouwen”s great book, Wounded Healers, with its message that the greatest gift a spiritual healer brings to his ministry is his own experience of having been healed in his woundedness.
The next occurrence was during a trip to Toronto from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, during the Vietnam War, on New Year’s Eve of 1965. I had been an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. So much so that the Democratic Party asked me to enter the Democratic primary as a peace candidate for congress against the hawk candidate, James Hanley. When I asked permission to do this from my Jesuit provincial he advised against it pointing out that Fr. Drinan was running for congress that same year in Boston. He felt that if there were two Jesuits running for congress that would be interpreted as a Jesuit conspiracy to take over America.
I had gone to Toronto to try to bolster the moral of my students who fled to Canada because their status as conscientious objectors to the war had been denied. While there I visited a gay bar called the St. Charles bar and met Charles Chiarelli who has been my life partner since then for the past 43 years. I could never have carried out my ministry if I had not had a deep personal experience with Charlie of the goodness and holiness of gay love.
Another debt of gratitude I owe the Holy Spirit is the support I have received from my sister, Sister Sheila. Sis was a Franciscan nun in the convent of St. Mary of the Angels in Williamsville, NY. Sister had a progressive bone disease for many years and lived in the infirmary of her motherhouse. When she heard that I was involved in a ministry to gay and lesbians, she prayed to the Spirit for a sign to confirm that my ministry was from God. A fellow nun returned from the missions in Africa asked my sister if the John McNeill who wrote The Church and the Homosexual was her brother. When Sis said yes, the nun asked her to thank me. Nearly all her personnel at the hospital she directed were gay men. She did not know how to deal with them until she read my book. That book put her at ease in dealing with the gay orderlies. Sis took that as her sign. She told me whenever I gave a retreat or talk to a gay or lesbian audience let her know exactly when. She would gather twenty to thirty elderly nuns in the infirmary and they would pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament that God would use me to bring the message of God’s love to my audience. I was always consciously aware of the spiritual power of those prayers. As symbol of that spiritual alliance, Sis had this beautiful rainbow stole made for me. We continued that ministerial alliance until Sis’s death from bone cancer in 1995. I am sure Sis is still with us with her prayers today.
Several events occurred during the writing of my first book that I ascribed to the Holy Spirit working overtime. After several years of research, I wrote a long article titled, “The Christian Male Homosexual” and mailed it off to the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a conservative priests’ journal. The editor wrote back that my article arrived just in time. He had made the decision to resign as editor and enter the Trappist order. So he decided to publish the article over three issues in 1972. The response was so positive that my Jesuit colleagues at Woodstock seminary asked me to major the articles into a book.
While doing research on my book the librarian at Union Theological gave me a copy of an anonymous research article on scripture and homosexuality which I found out several years later was the first draft of John Boswell’s brilliant book: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.
Once the manuscript of the book was completed, I began the process of undergoing censorship within the Jesuit order to receive an imprimi potest. First, on a request from Jesuit headquarters in Rome, I sent it to seven Jesuit moral theologians in the United States. All seven found it a serious theological contribution and approved its publication. General Pedro Arrupé hesitated and requested that I mail the manuscript to Rome where it would be censored by several Roman Jesuit moralists. They also approved publication.
Just as my manuscript arrived on Father Arrupé’s desk, a world famous sculptress named Jacqueline Ziegler arrived from the United States to sculpt the head of Father Arrupé. Jacqueline, several years before, had come to Syracuse, New York after many years with the Peace Corps in Africa and joined the faculty of Le Moyne College as the professor of fine arts. We became close friends. Jacqueline made the decision to convert from Judaism to Catholicism and asked me to be her spiritual director. On the feast of St. Ignatius in July 1974, I baptized her in the student chapel at Le Moyne. (Jacqueline did a larger than life sculpture of my head, which is now with my archives at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.)
Just as Pedro Arrupé began to read my manuscript, Jacqueline began to sculpt his head and tell him about this wonderful Jesuit, who baptized her, named John McNeill at Le Moyne College. I do not know what effect this had on Father Arrupé’s decision to grant me his imprimi potest. But I am sure it did not hurt.
Archbishop Weakland in his memoirs has this to say about Arrupé: “If from all the people I have known in my life in the Church, I had to select only one for sainthood, it would be Pedro Arrupé”.
The next event was the actual publication of the book, The Church and the Homosexual in 1976. I had prayed to God to act as my public relations agent and God certainly delivered. A major article by the religion editor Kenneth Briggs was on the front page of the New York Times. Special articles appeared in Time magazine and Newsweek. I made three appearances on the Phil Donohue show and several on the Larry King Live show.
The day of its publication I was invited to appear on the Today show. It was Tom Brokaw’s first day as host. He did not feel confident to handle such a hot potato as a theological work on homosexuality, so he invited Russell Barber, the religion editor, to sit in with him for the interview. Russell told me later that he was furious at having to take my book with him for his weekend on Fire Island, but ended up delighted when he read the book and invited me to appear on his Review of Religion show a few days later.
There were innumerable manifestations of the grace of the Holy Spirit over the years. But the one that stands out as most remarkable occurred during a trip to Europe in 1988 after the publication of my second major work, Taking a Chance on God: Liberation Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families, and Friends. Charlie and I had been invited to do a series of conferences at various universities in Holland. We decided to take a trip to Paris for a few days. On arriving in Paris, I called Jacques Perotti, the assistant to Père André and the founder of David and Jonathan, a gay group for French speaking Catholics. Jacques told me that there was an international meeting of David and Jonathan groups in a monastery outside of Paris and invited me to address the group. I warned him that my French was almost non-existent and I would need a translator. When I arrived, I gave a one-hour talk in the best French I ever used. I believe that God gave me the gift of tongues that day. As a result, David and Jonathon translated my book into French and made it their official manual.
Once again, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit when I faced the choice of giving up all ministries to LGBT people or being dismissed from the Jesuits after 40 years. I went to Gethsemane Abbey to seek God’s help in making that decision. While there, a Trappist monk came to my room and gave me a copy of the Buddist boddisatva vow of universal compassion. As I read that vow, it became clear to me what God wanted of me…to continue the ministry and pay the price. I sought the spiritual help of Fr. Matthew Kelty, the guest master at the monastery. I remember him saying to me: “John, God has put you in touch with the suffering of the gay and lesbian community in a special way. Now it is your duty to do whatever you can do to relieve that suffering!”
Shortly after my dismissal from the Society of Jesus, Walter Wink, the biblical theologian and my colleague on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, wrote me a letter in which he said: “John, when the Vatican imprudently slammed the door on you, it blew open a thousand other doors.” That was a prophetic statement. Bishop Paul Moore, of the New York Episcopal diocese wrote to me inviting me to join his church and carry on my ministry there. When William Sloane Coffin retired as minister at Riverside Church, the Maranatha gay group at Riverside submitted my name as a candidate to replace him as pastor. (I always hoped Cardinal O’Connor got wind of that!) Robert Raines, the Methodist director of Kirkridge Retreat Center organized a letter of protest to Rome signed by several famous protestant pastors and theologians, among them, Paul Moore, Harvey Cox and Sloan Coffin. In the letter, they asked the Vatican to restore me because my ministry to LGBT people was as important to their churches as it was to the Roman church. Scores of gay clergy from all denominations began to flock to my retreats for gay Christians at Kirkridge; among them Gene Robinson, the future gay bishop.
I would be remiss today if I failed to pay tribute to Rev. Joseph Doucé. Joseph was a Baptist minister. He was born in Belgium and became a minister in the church in Holland. He opened a specialized ministry in Paris called Christ, the Liberator, to all sexual outcasts, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and transsexuals. He had a special ministry to pedophiles and the victims of pedophiles
When Rev. Doucé heard of my work, he came to New York to meet with me. On several occasions, I attended and spoke at his Sunday services in Paris. Joseph was responsible for the publication and distribution of my books in French. In 1990, Rev. Doucé invited Charlie and me to come to Strasburg for me to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of all the Christian gay and lesbian groups in Europe. After the conference, he and his lover returned together with us to Paris. The next day we flew back to New York. A few days later, we received a tearful phone call from his lover. He told us that men disguised as Parisian police came to the center and arrested Joseph. When his lover went to the police station, they denied any knowledge of the arrest. We eventually found out that he was kidnapped by secret police who brought him to a secret prison in Paris where they tortured him for several weeks and finally murdered him and dumped his body in a woods outside of Paris. They were acting on a rumor that Rev Doucé had a list of high government officials who were pederasts and they wanted that information at any cost. Later we heard that the murderers of Rev. Doucé were openly bragging about their murder of the pedophile Doucé. To my knowledge, they were never brought to justice. Rev. Joseph Doucé is a true martyr in the cause of gay liberation.
To bring this reflection to a close, I believe that we are witnessing an extraordinary transformation of the Church from a patriarchal, authoritative institution into a Church of the Holy Spirit, a democratic Church that recognizes the Holy Spirit dwelling within all its members and sees authority as coming from the ground up.
At his discourse at the last supper Jesus is reported in the gospel of John: “It is necessary that I should go away before the Spirit can come to you. If I go away I will send the Spirit to you. The Spirit will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” What was that necessity? Why could the Holy Spirit not come as long as Jesus was alive?
I believe that Jesus was expressing a basic law governing human growth into spiritual maturity. As humans, we must grow from dependence on external authority to dependence on an authority that dwells within us. To achieve that growth we need fallible authorities. If our parents had been infallible, we could never develop into mature adults making our own decisions and taking responsibility for them.
Thank God that Church authorities have proved so fallible. The result has been a maturing of the people of God. This began when the Vatican fumbled the issue of birth control, forcing millions of Catholic to exercise their freedom of conscience, make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what the present Pope is against when he decries moral relativism. Speaking of our last Pope, Archbishop Weakland had this to say:
He (John Paul II) did not read the signs of the time, namely, the opening of Vatican II toward more participatory government on all levels of church life…Discerning the action of the Spirit in the whole Church was not on his agenda. This failure was probably the most important lost opportunity of the post-conciliar period (pp.407-408).
One of the greatest beneficiaries of the fallibility of church authorities has been the LGBT Catholic community. We came to realize early on that we could not accept and obey Church teaching on homosexuality without destroying ourselves physically, psychologically and spirituality. Consequently, as a matter of survival we had to take distance from Church teaching, develop our freedom of conscience and learn to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to us through our experience. The result has been that the LGBT community is leading the way to transform the Catholic Church into a Church of the Holy Spirit.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone! This is the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” THANK YOU!! New Ways Ministry for your many decades of heroic service to the Church and to the Catholic LGBT community Thank you, God, for all the special maturing graces you are pouring out on the people of God. Thank you especially for the special role you are calling the LGBT community to play in establishing the kingdom of God.
Veni creator spiritus. Mentes tuorum visita; Imple superna gratia quae tu creasti pectora. A special heartfelt thank you, Holy Spirit!
John J. McNeill