Two Jesuits: One a Living Pope, the Other a Dead Gay Rights Activist.

Jesuit Seal

I’m sitting here on a quiet Saturday morning, reading the New York Times, while the TV is on in the background. The screen is displaying images of the on-going Pope-a-palooza festival as Pope Francis now leaves New York City and heads to Philly. I have been moved by the Pope’s words and actions during his visit to the U.S. and I am hoping that he inspires all of us–Catholics, non-Catholics, and especially politicians–to better take up the cause of lifting up the poor and being better stewards of this beautiful planet.

Then I came upon the obituary of Fr. John McNeill, S.J. in the Times.

Fr. McNeill wrote The Church and The Homosexual. First published in 1976, the book was one of the first theologically based defenses of the morality and normality of gay life, coming at a time when to even mention such a topic was strictly taboo. The fact that it was written by a Catholic priest was even more stunning. This book profoundly influenced me and the research I conducted beginning in the early 1990s on the challenges facing gay and lesbian students at religiously-affiliated colleges.

The book was initially approved for publication by the Catholic Church (it received the Vatican’s imprimatur), but within a year they removed that approval and in 1977 the Vatican ordered him not to speak or write about the topic of homosexuality. For the better part of a decade he obeyed them, but the AIDS crisis beginning in the early 1980s and a Vatican publication in the mid-1980s that defined homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” convinced him he could no longer remain silent. He became a staunch supporter of and activist regarding gay issues for the rest of his life. And it cost him. While he wasn’t excommunicated from the church, he was expelled from the Jesuits (his order) and his ability to perform the sacraments of the Church was removed. So while he remained a priest, he couldn’t do “priestly” things.

So, I sit here on this Saturday morning with images and thoughts of these two Jesuits, one a pope and one an expelled activist, who both fight/fought for the marginalized, the excluded, and the invisible. And I feel sad. Sad for the death of John McNeill, though at 90 he had a good long life considering he survived a Nazi prison camp in WWII, but sad at the realization that I am not doing enough to address the needs of others in both my personal and professional life. The good news is that this coincidence of events coming together for me this morning is a call to do better, to do more. Every moment represents a possibility of self-transformation.

Despite his expulsion and other penalties, Fr. McNeill never, in his own mind, ceased being a Catholic (I left years ago), a Jesuit, or a priest. He remained true to the values and principles of his faith and his vocation throughout his life and did not allow even such powerful entities as the Vatican to define who he was. So, while Pope Francis’ words and actions inspire me and I look forward to him continuing his global leadership, it is Fr. John McNeill’s example of unstoppable faith and action that I will cling to as I try to be more mindful of the needs of the marginalized, the excluded, and the invisible and as I try to do a better job of contributing to and changing our world for the better. I urge you to look at the life of Fr. McNeill.

Who inspires you today and what are you inspired to do?

Follow me on Twitter: @pglove33

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