1. 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 the Jesuit 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. The film takes viewers to Le Moyne College in the late 60s and early 70s and the on campus experience for students and professors.
2. Along with a handful of others like Rev. Troy Perry of Metropolitan Community Church, John may fairly be seen as a founder of the entire LGBT religious and spiritual movement. His writings, including theological articles and the groundbreaking 1976 book The Church and the Homosexual, inspired the founding of the national LGBT Catholic organization Dignity USA. Dignity quickly spread across the United States and became an immensely influential, though often behind the scenes, force for change in attitudes toward LGBT people among Catholics and in society at large. Dignity was one of the first LGBT advocacy and support organizations within a religious denomination, which became a model for many others that followed, including Jewish and Muslim groups in recent years. In addition, John was an organizing cofounder of one of Dignity’s largest and most important chapters, Dignity/New York of New York City, in 1972.
3. As the entire LGBT community has come to understand, religious attitudes among voters are among the most powerful factors influencing their beliefs about the entire spectrum of LGBT civil rights, including marriage equality. John’s accessible and engaging theological writings had a particularly strong influence not only within Catholicism, but within all the Christian churches. For example, as Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, has movingly testified, John’s work had a seminal influence on him at a critical turning point in his life. John is also a revered elder within the Metropolitan Community Church, the single largest LGBT organization in the world. The current leader of MCC, Rev. Nancy Wilson, appears in the film.
4. After the Stonewall uprising of June 1969, John became a voice of liberation for all gay people. Clips of Anita Bryant’s Save the Children crusade and psychiatrist Charles Socarides highlight the anti-gay views John was challenging.
5. In 1976, John published The Church and the Homosexual. The book rocked not only the Catholic Church, but other religious institutions around the world. John appeared on the “Today” show, where his coming out as a gay man and priest before an audience of millions was historic. The book was translated into five languages and became a big seller around the world. John did countless additional interviews, as well, including the most controversial and influential of its time, “The Phil Donahue Show.”
6. In 1977, Vatican authorities silenced John McNeill for nine years because of the views expressed in The Church and the Homosexual. The order prohibited him from writing and speaking about homosexuality.
7. Nevertheless, John continued to proclaim hope, dignity, compassion, and respect for the gay community throughout the 1980s in the face of the despair and derision of the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. With his close friend Fr. Mychal Judge, who died on 9/11 in the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, John set up the Upper Room AIDS ministry in New York City.
8. In 1983, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI and then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent John a further and more severe order of silencing, which prohibited him not only from writing and speaking, but from continuing to serve as a psychotherapist to LGBT people. In October 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger issued the Vatican’s “ Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” which defined homosexuality as “an objective disorder” and “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” As a result, Dignity chapters around the country were expelled from Catholic parishes. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and the callousness of the letter compounded untold suffering and distress. In 1986, 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, he “could no longer be silent.”
9. On April 14, 1987, John’s superiors in the Jesuit order arrived at his apartment in New York City. In English and Latin, they read to him the Vatican “Decree of Expulsion. John McNeill, a Jesuit priest of forty years’ standing, was expelled from his religious community because of disobedience to Vatican authorities, and more specifically for questioning Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality. He was dismissed, finally, in the words of the decree, because of his “pertinacious disobedience.”
10. 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.
11. Wherever he goes, John introduces and gives thanks for Charles Chiarelli, his partner of forty-five 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 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. The film also includes footage of John and Charlie as they cross the border to Canada to be legally married in September 2008.
12. John McNeill is an inspiring model of courage, integrity, sacrifice, and perseverance for anyone seeking to bring about change regarding LGBT issues, particularly within religious institutions but extending far beyond them. He is a key figure within the entire modern LGBT rights movement that began with the Stonewall uprising of 1969 and now finds itself poised on the brink of full civil equality in the United States.
Interviewees in the film include bishops, activists, fellow priests, leaders from the US, Canada and Ireland, friends and family. Among them are: Rev. Nancy Wilson, Leader of The Metropolitan Community Church; Dr. Mary E. Hunt, feminist theologian; Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church; comedian Kate Clinton; outspoken pro-LGBT Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton; Fr. Robert Carter, SJ (co-founder of Dignity/New York in 1972 and of the NGLTF in 1973); national human rights activist and advocate Ginny Appuzzo; and Andy Humm, journalist for Gay USA. Critics of John McNeill are also interviewed, namely, Msgr. William Smith of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, and Fr. Jim Lloyd, CSP, of the Courage Apostolate, the official Roman Catholic ministry that advocates celibacy and sexual abstinence for LGBT people.