“Documentary focuses on gay activism of Jesuit John J. McNeill”
Documentary focuses on gay activism of Jesuit John J. McNeill
By Steve Barnes
As a socially conscious teenager in Ireland in the 1970s, Brendan Fay was encouraged by progressive minded forces in the Catholic church to protest apartheid in South Africa, humanrights abuses in Latin America, war and nuclear proliferation. Conspicuously and painfully absent, however, was another issue that was fundamental to Fay.
“I absolutely dared not speak out about my experience as a gay man,” says Fay, noting that homosexual acts were not decriminalized in Ireland until 1993. He adds, “It was forbidden culturally, legally and theologically. As a result, I internalized what I now know to be homophobia.”
Moving to New York City in 1984 to pursue studies in theology was a revelation for Fay, who has long been a documentary filmmaker, writer and activist for gay causes and marriage equality. The American gay rights movement was a decade and a half old when he arrived in this country, and in addition to finding a vibrant nightlife and cultural activities — gay bars, movie houses, theaters, an annual pride parade, social groups — Fay discovered an organization for gay Catholics called Dignity.
He went to a Dignity meeting and was both flabbergasted and thrilled to meet hundreds of fellow Catholics, who gathered openly each week to practice their faith. The group proved essential to helping Fay integrate his Catholicism and his identity as a gay man.
“I was terribly closeted during the day and gay at night,” says Fay. “It is hard to describe what it was like to meet a group of Catholics who saw their sexuality as a gift, not a problem to be solved or a piece of their humanity to be hidden.”
One of the founders of Dignity was John J. McNeill, a Catholic priest and Jesuit scholar who in 1976 hadpublished the groundbreaking book “The Church and the Homosexual.” Acclaimed for its intellectually rigorous theological challenge to traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuality, the book and later works brought McNeill to national attention on talk shows as a repeat guest of Phil Donahue and on network news (McNeill was interviewed on Tom Brokaw’s first day as host of the “Today” show on NBC).
“John McNeill preached a Catholicism that incorporated activism and justice, and he pushed for Dignity (members) to form communities of support and prayer,” says Fay. In the mid’80s, even as the AIDS crisis loomed, “It still was a time of great optimism and hope, and for me a good part of that had to do with (McNeill).”
Although Fay knew McNeill in those years, he first interviewed him almost 20 years later for the 2006 documentary “Saint of 9/11,” about Mychal Judge, a Catholic priest, former assistant to the president of Siena College and chaplain of the New York Fire Department, who was killed by falling debris from the World Trade Center while administering last rites on Sept. 11, 2001.
Recognizing the enormity of McNeill’s contributions to gay rights and theological teachings, Fay spent six years making a documentary about him, from his youth in Buffalo, his time as a World War II prisoner of war, his years as professor and activist whose outspokenness got him expelled by the Jesuits to, eventually, the husband of Charles Chiarelli, who has been his partner for nearly 50 years. The result, “Taking a Chance on God,” will be screened tonight at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, with Fay in attendance.
“As a filmmaker, I feel a commitment to find to find these pioneers and tell their stories,” says Fay. “John is part of a generation that will soon be all gone. We’re so fortunate to have him still with now, at age 87.”
Says Fay, “John has thanked me many times for the film. He feels that through it, after he’s gone, his message will live on. … What he says in the film, that gay love could be a holy love, is as relevant to today’s young people as it was in the ’70s, when John first began proclaiming it.”
If you go:
“Taking a Chance on God,” with filmmaker Brendan Fay
What: Documentary about 87yearold John McNeill, a Catholic priest, Jesuit professor and longtime gay activist
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Ave., Troy
Running time: 55 minutes
Tickets: Suggested donation $10 ($5 students/low income)
Info: 272-2390, http:// www.mediasanctuary.org