Silence to Speech Films Presents: 

Taking A Chance on God

A documentary profile of John McNeill, pioneer gay priest

Taking A Chance on God tells the story of 85 year-old John McNeill, Catholic priest and pioneering advocate for LGBT human rights. The film traces his life – from a childhood in Buffalo, his months as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, his call to priesthood and his ongoing passion for justice and equality. In the 1960s, with fellow Jesuit Dan Berrigan, he was a herald for peace and nonviolence at the height of the Vietnam war. After the Stonewall riots of June 1969, John McNeill became a voice of liberation for gay people. In 1972, he co-founded the gay and lesbian Catholic group Dignity NY. In 1976, he published the groundbreaking classic The Church and the Homosexual, and his coming out on the Today Show in 1976, before millions, was historic. In the 1980s, he proclaimed hope, dignity, compassion, and respect for the gay community in the face of the despair and derision of the darkest days of the AIDS crisis.


On April 14 1987 John’s Jesuit superiors arrived at his apartment at 98th Street in NYC. In English and Latin they read to him the Vatican ‘Decree of Expulsion.’  John McNeill, Jesuit priest of 40 years standing, was expelled from his religious community because of disobedience to Vatican authorities; specifically, he had questioned magisterial Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality. This expulsion was the final act of a drama unfolding since 1977.


In 1983, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, had sent an order of silence. When Cardinal Ratzinger issued the October 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, defining homosexuality as “an objective disorder” and “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” Dignity chapters were expelled from Catholic parishes. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and the callousness of the Letter compounded untold suffering and distress. John McNeill broke the Vatican-imposed silence he had endured for nine years and refused to end his public ministry among the gay community. In conscience, he wrote to his superiors from the Abbey of Gethsemani; he could no longer be silent. He was dismissed, finally, in the words of the decree, because of his “pertinacious disobedience.” Profoundly hurt, but without bitterness, John nevertheless continued his ministry – as a therapist, a retreat director, and through his writing. On the road, or from his blog, John continues to be that same voice today, proclaiming same-sex love as holy, and encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons around the world.


In the film, McNeill is a natural storyteller, whether at a kitchen table or in his homilies and retreats. He details his life as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany and the survival he owes to the kindness of a stranger, and chronicles the early days of lesbian and gay liberation through stories from the Gospel. McNeill is a figure who inspires some and frustrates others with his tenacious spirit of hope and trust. His scholarly books and articles, translated into many languages, reflect his brilliant mind and wisdom. A serious-minded psychotherapist and theologian, those who know him well know too how readily he turns to laughter and song. There is a tenderness to John McNeill, easily felt in his warm and welcoming embrace.


Wherever he goes, John introduces and gives thanks for Charles Chiarelli, his partner of 45 years. Taking A Chance on God is a story of the heart; the story of John McNeill’s love for his Church, his gay community, his Jesuit brothers and of his beloved Charlie. With honesty and emotion, he reflects on the challenges and joys of these defining relationships – and in a particular way, that with Charlie. Taking A Chance on God gives a rare look into the heart of one inspiring man’s journey, as he negotiates his life as a Catholic priest and as a gay man.


Interviewees in the film, include bishops, fellow Jesuits, leaders from the US, Canada and Ireland, activists, friends and family. Among them are: Rev. Nancy Wilson, Leader of The Metropolitan Community Church; Dr. Mary E. Hunt, feminist theologian; Bishop Gene Robinson; comedian Kate Clinton; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton; Fr. Robert Carter SJ (co-founder of Dignity in 1972 and of the NLGTF in 1973); gay rights activist and advocate Fr. Bernard Lynch; and Andy Humm, journalist for Gay USA. Critics of John McNeill are also interviewed, namely, Msgr. William Smith of St. Joseph's Seminary, and Fr. Jim Lloyd, CSP of the Courage Apostolate.


A Documentary Profile of Pioneer Gay Priest, John McNeill