‘Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey’ by John J. McNeill | Interview

Changing a God of fear into a God of love

John McNeill realized his calling to become a priest after sharing a pig’s dinner. He was only 17, and had enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. His unit was captured by the Germans and forced to work on farms. The German forces had starved the soldiers and McNeill had withered away to a mere 80 pounds.

“A European farm worker was mixing slop for the pigs and took pity on me,” McNeill’s voice took on a nostalgic tone as he spoke with Whosoever by phone from his home in Florida. “He took a potato from the slop and tossed it to me.”

The worker’s generosity would have cost him his life if a guard had seen it, McNeill pointed out.

“I tried to gesture a thanks to him. His response to me was the sign of the cross. That determined my decision to enter the priesthood. I saw in that man’s face a god of love, and because of his confidence in God’s love he was ready to risk his life to feed a total stranger. I wanted that kind of courage and replace my fear with a god of love.”

Courage is what McNeill was blessed with, in spades. In his new book Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey, he recounts the 30 years he’s spent in ministry to gays and lesbians, and the struggles he had to face to even get his words out to the community.

He was ordained into the priesthood in 1959, but says what should have been a moment of joy was instead one of deep despair.

“I felt like a hypocrite because I was still in the and had never acknowledged my homosexuality to anyone. I feared that if I admitted my orientation I would be denied ordination. As I prostrated myself in the ordination ceremony at Fordham, I was begging God in a sort of despair to forgive me.”

That feeling of forgiveness eluded McNeill early in his career as a Jesuit priest. He struggled with his identity as a gay man, and the compulsive acting out of sexual needs that filled him with shame, guilt and self-hatred. One night in the early ’60s he stood on the banks of Paris’ River Seine, contemplating suicide, when he experienced what he calls “a special grace from God.”

“God would not take away my ‘thorn in the flesh.’ God’s grace would be sufficient for me, and that thorn would keep me humble. I was to carry on the struggle and not despair but trust that God was somehow allowing me to go through all this because their was a purpose in it.”

That purpose was to bring God’s love to a deeply wounded gay and lesbian community. The first step in that ministry was realized in 1976, with the publication of his landmark book, The Church and the Homosexual.

McNeill finished the book in 1974, but it took two years before his superiors in Rome would okay the publication of the book. Shortly after the book’s publication, and the media uproar it caused, McNeill was ordered by the church not to speak publicly about homosexuality. It’s an order he obeyed for nine years, until he realized “gay people needed a spokesperson and defender in the Catholic church who, from personal experience, could fearlessly speak the truth about gayness.”

His decision to become that spokesperson and defender led to his expulsion from the Jesuits in 1987. A year later he wrote another book after the title came to him in a dream. In Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends, McNeill sought to open the door to “a new ethical understanding and acceptance of homosexual relationships as morally good, and gay love as a deeper sharing in divine love.”

His third book, Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else, was published in 1995 and explored “the special gift we gay people have from God of being whole persons fully in touch with everything masculine and feminine in ourselves.”

The publication of all of these books took great patience and incredible courage from McNeill. He worked as best he could within the power structure of the Vatican to get his views published, and finally found the grace and courage to leave the church when he realized he could not speak his heart freely within its hierarchy. His prayer in the fields of war had been answered in glorious ways.

Escaping the God of Fear

McNeill’s trilogy of books all had one aim: to help gays and lesbians overcome their fear of a God that hated them, and to instead accept themselves and whole and loved children of God.

He grew up like many of us: a good God-fearing Christian. His book recounts the paralyzing fear of God that was instilled in him from very early in his childhood.

“My mother died when I was four,” McNeill remembered. “I had the feeling that God took my mother away because I had been a bad boy. I began very early to relate to God primarily out of fear. Scripture says ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ but it was my experience in childhood that ‘perfect fear casts out all love.’ If you’re relating to God out of fear there’s no room for any deep feeling of genuine love or affection.”

It’s just that god of fear that keeps many gays and lesbians from even daring to accept the concept that God loves them just as they are. For so long, and still today, gays and lesbians only hear of God’s judgment of them, and very little about how much God loves them. The church reinforces the message of fear with “turn or burn” philosophies for gays and lesbians.

This message of fear wounds gays and lesbians deeply. The rejection by church and society breeds self-hatred and self-rejection in gays and lesbians. That, in turn, leads to a deep anger. The fear and anger combine to drive them further from God.

There is an escape from fear and anger, according to McNeill.

“What helped me most of all to change over from a god of fear to a god of love was my experience of gay love. I began to realize what I was seeking was the intimacy of a love relationship and the conviction that I could stop hating myself and really believe I am lovable. It was experience of gay love that led me to acceptance of myself as something good and loveable and this led me to be able to believe in God’s love for me and hear the message of love in the New Testament.”

McNeill has been trying to shine the light on the path to freedom from fear and anger through his books and ministry to gays and lesbians. With his autobiography he hopes readers will see how one person successfully integrated gayness and a deep love for God and finally learn how to let go of their fear and anger, and trust a God that loves them unconditionally.

“I thought by holding up the example of my life and showing the wonderful things God accomplished despite me and my weaknesses and failures, it would encourage other gay and lesbian people to realize that God does love them and they can live a close spiritual life in deep intimate relationship with God while accepting their gayness.”

This has been McNeill’s goal all along, from the very moment he heard God’s call in that German field. Some 60 years later, McNeill becomes for many of us, just like that worker in the war torn field, tossing spiritual sustenance to a starving gay and lesbian community, regardless of personal cost. In so doing, he frees us from the god of fear, and reveals to us the face of the God of love.