John McNeill was born in Buffalo on September 2, 1925 and quickly faced a terrible tragedy. His Irish immigrant mother, the former Mary Sharkey, died when he was just four years old.
“After my mother’s death, (her sister) Katie consulted with the local priest and decided to follow an ancient Irish tradition,” McNeill wrote in his 1998 memoir Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair. “When a woman dies and leaves young children it was the custom in Irish culture that her unmarried sister had the duty to marry her husband and together take a vow of chastity to live as brother and sister.”
From a very young age, McNeill, who would go on to work closely with beloved Irish American priest Father Mychal Judge, had a keen understanding not only of life’s dark side, but also old world dedication to family and culture.
Yet, McNeill, who died late last month at the age of 90, also grew into a person who very much reflects our times.
McNeill became a priest in 1959 and then a national figure 17 years later when, in an interview with news anchor Tom Brokaw, McNeill announced he was gay.
Nobody should have been surprised by McNeill’s rebellious stance. He comes from a family of fighters.
His mother’s family was famous in the west of Ireland for their support of Irish independence from England. They were known as the Battlin’ Sharkeys.
Looking back at McNeill’s life is instructive, especially now. Just last week, the Vatican fired a Polish theologian named Krzysztof Charamsa who also announced that he was gay.
As if that weren’t a big enough headache for Vatican traditionalists, Charamsa timed his announcement to coincide with this week’s closely-watched synod in Rome.
Charamsa said he was looking to make "an enormous noise for the good of the church" and wanted to put some "good Christian pressure" on the Vatican.
”This decision of mine to come out was a very personal one taken in a Catholic Church that is homophobic and very difficult and harsh (towards gays)," added Charamsa.
Forty years earlier, it was the Irish American McNeill who sought to press the church for reform.
“He was a gay man who was a Jesuit priest -- and being a gay man who is a Jesuit priest, by the way, is not an unusual thing,” Mary E. Hunt, a Roman Catholic feminist theologian and longtime friend of McNeill’s, told The New York Times last week, in McNeill’s obituary.
“The difference is that John McNeill was honest, and he was honest early. And being honest early meant that he paid a large price.”
McNeill’s journey from humble priest to Vatican outcast began in 1970.
“Keenly aware of the self-hatred and depression that many gay Catholics experienced, he began ministering to them,” the Times noted.
By 1976, with Vatican approval, he published an influential book called The Church and the Homosexual. However, church leaders soured on the book as well as McNeill, and told him to cease speaking publicly on sexual matters.
McNeill, however, continued to work quietly with gays and lesbians. When the AIDS crisis hit New York, McNeill and Father Judge, the former FDNY chaplain and first official victim of the 9/11 terror attacks, set up an AIDS ministry in Harlem, serving the homeless.
It was in 1986 when McNeill’s ties to the church were strained to the breaking point. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- the future Pope Benedict -- was among the authors of a Vatican document entitled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”
The harsh language aimed at gays in the document was criticized publicly by McNeill and many others. Vatican officials ordered McNeill to be quiet. This time, McNeill refused.
By 1987, he was expelled from the Jesuits. That same year he was the grand marshal of New York’s gay pride parade.
In the decades that followed, McNeill wrote numerous books and continued to dedicate himself to others. Whether or not his principled stance -- like Monsignor Charamsa’s this week -- will lead to reform in the church remains to be seen.