John McNeill Memorial Remarks by Mary E. Hunt

by Mary E. Hunt, co-founder of WATER
at Dignity New York, November 14, 2015

John McNeill was a man of prayer. So it is fitting that we share a moment of silence in memory of the tragic losses of life in Paris.

Greetings to Charlie in absentia, to Dignity New York hosts, and friends of John. It is an honor to share brief remarks with you on this occasion at once sad and exhilarating. It is sad in our shared loss of a friend despite his 90 years of life, and exhilarating in the opportunity to begin to name the many ways that John McNeill changed the world. Just this week Pope Francis cautioned about preaching too long. And since I always do everything the Holy Father asks of us, I will act accordingly!

My dear friend and colleague Virginia Ramey Mollenkott sent me the following email when she learned that I would be speaking here: “I hope you will mention that John was my mentor as I began my ministry among lesbian and gay people, and that I loved and revered him and Charlie. I’m sorry that our mobility problems keep us [Virginia and her partner Suzannah Tilton] from attending the several memorial services for this great human being. Thank you for representing Sisterly [a community of lesbian/queer women that meets annually at Kirkridge] and for including my appreciation for John’s witness in what you have to say.” I am honored to do so, and only wish Virginia were here to share her own insights. I bring the love and care of the Sisterly community and our collective gratitude for John’s life and ministry.

I begin with Virginia’s words because she and John were the incarnation, and I use the term literally, the incarnation of Christian love for countless LGBTIQ people at Kirkridge, the wonderful conference center in Pennsylvania. For more than two decades, they led annual “Lesbian, Gay Christian” weekend retreats there. It is no exaggeration to say that they saved lives. Newly out and still closeted people–including more than one bishop–flocked to that mountain retreat to explore, pray, learn, and connect. Countless folks left with their dignity newly intact, their faith renewed, their thoughts of suicide put back on the shelf, and some even left with a new partner! It is impossible to overestimate the impact of those weekends on what is now a considerably healthier LGBTIQ Christian community.

John McNeill, a good Jesuit Catholic, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a marvelous evangelical feminist, were unlikely bedfellows. They spanned various spectrums of sex and gender, theological approaches, worship styles, and personal experiences. Together they embodied the wise elders of a community finding its way. Their honest sharing and limitless compassion modeled what religious people could look like at a time when institutional churches, both Catholic and evangelical, gave the Christian faith a bad name. If they had only done that in their long lives it would have been enough. Dayenu. But of course there was so much more.

As Brendan Fay depicts in his marvelous documentary “Taking A Chance on God,” John’s life was full of amazing accomplishments. Three stand out in my mind: First, as I said in the film, he made history. Second, he maintained a steadfast faith despite formidable odds. Third, he lived his passion. I suspect that most of us would be delighted to achieve a fraction of any one of those accomplishments in a lifetime.

John’s pioneering work on things queer in Catholicism opened enormous space both intellectual and spiritual. He began to speak publicly about what was discussed behind closed doors in what Mark Jordan has aptly described as “the honey-comb closet” of Catholic clergy. I am sure that John earned his share of enemies, probably chief among them some of the most closeted clerics whose terror at being honest stopped them in their tracks and fueled their efforts to try to stop John. The son of the great feminist theologian Anne McGrew Bennett once said of his mother that “she insisted upon things that other people postponed insisting upon.” I think that describes John as well—that he insisted on things that others wished desperately that he would postpone insisting upon. Such insistence gets one in trouble every time, but it also makes history. Someone has to take the lead, say the unsayable, and move on with the new normal. That was John McNeill.

He did it over and over, in books and articles, in letters to Vatican officials, on television and in news magazines, in private counseling and confession. Let me remind that he did most of it well before Facebook and Twitter, before computers and cable TV, pre Internet and without a cell phone. The message was clear and stark—same-sex love is of God. That insight sparked people from a range of religious traditions to explore their own scriptures and practices. I received an email recently from an Imam who wrote of John’s influence on Muslims: “he (also) helped me in formulating my inclusive and progressive views for the LGBTQI Muslim community…finding a space that didn’t exist before these modern times.” (Imam Daayiee Abdullah, MECCA Institute, private correspondence, 10.6.15). The fact that in the 21st century there is growing widespread religious affirmation of same-sex love will forever be linked with the name John McNeill.

Second, John maintained a steadfast, even delightful faith despite incredible odds. To read John McNeill is to find him emphasizing the love of God, the very personal, just for you, no one more important in the eyes of God, love of the Divine for creation down to the smallest detail with no one, nothing left out. He believed this in spite of his experience of war, being a prisoner, his lonely Jesuit years, and his subsequent mistreatment by that group. He kept a firm faith in God even when he had to struggle to make a living, and through the end of his life when illness struck. I marvel.

I must admit that I have envied John his faith. Some days I wish I had it. But mostly I learned from John who wrote: “As St. Irenaeus said: Gloria Dei, homo vivens. The glory of God are humans fully alive. That includes being sexually fully alive. It delights God to see the creatures he {God} loves enjoying God’s gift of playful sex within an intimate loving relationship with a spirit of gratitude.” ( August 15, 2012)

Oh, so that is what kept John going—the experience, memory, and eternal hope that some of our most enjoyable moments, including our sexual intimacies, are really at the heart of what is holy. Now there’s a faith I can affirm. If you believe, as John did, that human goodness, to whatever extent we are capable of it, grounds the cosmos as we know it and extends through time and space, you are blessed with a rich and useful faith. If only that were the message people hear from their religious traditions.

The third accomplishment of John McNeill was that he lived his passion. How many of us can say the same about our own lives? John could have chosen a closeted existence at Le Moyne College teaching the philosophy of Maurice Blondel, dabbling in scripture studies, serving a parish or university community, and ignoring the stirrings of sex and spirit that enlivened him. Worse, he could have survived on furtive sexual encounters or, even more tragically, adopted the stance some priests choose: to have their partners, permanent or otherwise, but live a charade of celibacy. John was forgiving of all of us in our limitations, but he knew what “humans fully alive” meant in his case and he lived accordingly. His was a love that knew no bounds, not just for Charlie but for the many people he encountered and the many who never crossed his path.

John’s was a dicey choice—taking a chance on God—that cost him dearly by most worldly measures—tenure, money, security, prestige, clerical privilege. But I never had the impression that John was less than joyous about his choices. At the end of the day, he could engage in the Jesuit Examen, a prayerful review of one’s experience, and affirm his vocation. What could be more fulfilling than giving other people their lives back in therapy, lives taken from them by church teachings and social customs that oppress? What could be more exciting than stirring up the theological brew of liberation? What could worth more than one’s good name, good friends, good partner, good community? John was survived by countless people who called him our priest, our friend, our therapist, and in Charlie’s case, partner.

I admit that none of these goods pay the bills, but what a life: to be oneself for a living. John lived the answer to the poet Mary Oliver’s timeless question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day”). John assumed the right to live as fully himself. In so doing, he invites us to exercise the human right to live as fully ourselves as well. He proved that it can be done with style and lasting impact for good.

Let the name of John McNeill be revered for all eternity. Let “John McNeill” be synonymous with love and justice. In the near term, let’s think about how to extend his reach—perhaps endowing John McNeill chairs in every Catholic university to teach queer liberation studies. Let us, his survivors and the many who follow us, take up our pieces of the work that our good brother started. John led the way, kept a delightful faith, and lived his passion.

May his memory be a blessing. John McNeill, Presente! Alleluia!

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