Last weekend filmmaker and gay rights activist Brendan Fay, 54, unveiled his new documentary film, five years in the making, called Taking a Chance on God, a study of the life of gay pioneer Irish American priest John McNeill.
For Fay and for many others in the gay rights movement McNeill is a hero, a pioneering figure as important in his way to the history of gay rights in America as Harvey Milk.
McNeill is probably best known for his ground-breaking theological work, The Church and the Homosexual, published in 1976, a book that has inspired Fay for decades. Now the new film is a way for the activist to repay a debt of inspiration and wisdom.
Taking a Chance on God highlights McNeill’s role as a crucial pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement as it follows the extraordinary life of the 86-year-old from his Buffalo, New York boyhood through his experiences as a POW in Nazi Germany, then later as a Vietnam peace promoter. The film also charts his enduring 46-year partnership to Charles Chiarelli.
In 1977 and again in 1983 McNeill, who was at the time a Jesuit priest, was silenced for writing about homosexuality by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would later become Pope Benedict (and who recently silenced Ireland’s own outspoken priests and America’s “radical” nuns for their doctrinal transgressions).
In Ratzinger’s words McNeill’s “pertinacious disobedience,” saw him consistently speaking out of turn on subjects that were forbidden, which led to an order of silence from the Vatican. McNeill was eventually expelled from the Jesuit order in April 1987.
It made no difference that they silenced him, it made no difference that they expelled him from the order. McNeill’s vocation was not altered in the least; he simply set about sharing his love of his Catholic faith in a new way with more receptive hearers.
McNeill founded Dignity, the gay Catholic organization, to give a voice to others marginalized by the conservative arm of the Vatican. He also worked to end the stigma and silence surrounding the gay community during the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
It’s an Irish history that is neither taught nor recognized by many in New York, but quietly McNeill, with assistance from Father Mychal Judge (who was the first recorded victim of the 9/11 attacks), began the Upper Room AIDS Ministry, an outreach for homeless persons with AIDS in Harlem during the 1980s crisis.
“A new generation of LGBT youth across the world welcomes John McNeill’s reassuring voice of hope,” Fay told the Irish Voice.
“McNeill’s message that gay love can be holy love is as relevant today as when he first began to proclaim it in the early 1970s.”
“Agitators,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “are a set of interfering, meddling people who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.”
It’s often forgotten now, after two decades at the forefront of gay rights activism in the Irish American community (where he has challenged the staunchly conservative organizers of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue) but activist and filmmaker Fay didn’t set out to become an agitator.
Born in Ireland, he was living in Drogheda, Co. Louth in the early 1980s when the choices facing him were the same ones faced most people in that decade (and again now) -- the dole queue or emigration.
Fay was notably Christian, leading prayer meetings and retreats, and writing for the national magazine New Creation. He had joined the Irish Christian Brothers at the age of 14, but in later years he was denied admission to the novicate.
Still, the church was an early and profoundly formative aspect of his life, and it led him to study theology for both his BA and MA degrees.
What upended the otherwise traditional clerical path of Fay’s life was a secret that defined him. Fay was gay in Ireland in an era when it was literally unspeakable.
It was so unthinkable that the topic was never discussed, at least not in language that gave it any dignity, and Fay was in search of dignity in those years.
It was, perhaps, inevitable, given his background and his faith, that he would meet and come to admire the man who made dignity the watchword of the organization that restored it to him. Taking a Chance on God is the work of a lifetime, for both men.
For screening times visit www.takingachanceongod.com.