Born in Buffalo NY, the youngest of 5 children, when 17 he became fully aware of gay attraction. After enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II, McNeill served in combat in the Third Army under General Patton and was captured in Germany in 1944. McNeill spent six months as a POW (Prisoner of War) until he was liberated in May of 1945. McNeill dates his decision to become a priest to an incident during his captivity. A fellow prisoner risked his life to give McNeill food, then made the sign of the cross.
John enrolled in Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, after his discharge from the army and, upon graduating magna cum laude, entered the Society of Jesus in 1948. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1959. In 1964, McNeill earned a Doctorate in Philosophy, with highest honors (Plus Grande Distinction), at Louvain University in Belgium.
During his professional career, McNeill taught philosophy at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY, and in the doctorate program at Fordham University in NYC. In 1965 John met his future life partner, Charles Chiarelli, at the St. Charles gay bar in Toronto. In 1972, he joined the combined Woodstock Jesuit Seminary and Union Theological Seminary faculty as professor of Christian Ethics, specializing in Sexual Ethics.
John cofounded Dignity chapter in New York City, the Roman Catholic inclusive organization, in 1974. Father General prohibited McNeill from publishing "anything in the popular press or to address homosexual groups".
In 1975, McNeill entered the graduate clinical program in Psychotherapy at the Institutes of Religion and Health (IRH). After completing the program, he began his private psychotherapy practice and became a member of the faculty of the IRH teaching courses in "Object Relations Theory of Psychodynamic Development". For many years while on the faculty at IRH, he was Director of the program in Pastoral Studies for inner city clergy at the Manhattan Branch.
He published the book The Church and the Homosexual (1976), approved (imprimi potest) by the Catholic hierarchy after considerable review. The same year, McNeill publicly acknowledges his own homosexuality on the Today Show.
One year after the publication of The Church and the Homosexual, McNeill received an order from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican ordering him to silence in the public media. He observed the silence for nine years while continuing a private ministry to gays and lesbians which included psychotherapy, workshops, lectures and retreats.
In 1988, he received a further order from Cardinal Ratzinger directing him to give up all ministry to gay persons, which he refused to do in conscience. As a result, he was expelled by the Vatican from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality, and for refusing to give up his ministry and psychotherapy practice to gay men and lesbians. McNeill had been a Jesuit for nearly 40 years.
As adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in 1990 he taught a course on "Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions of Ministry to Gays and Lesbians". The same year he received the National Human Rights Award in 1984 for his contributions to lesbian and gay rights, and in 1993, the Distinguished Contribution Award of the Eastern Region American Association of Pastoral Counselors for outstanding contribution to pastoral counseling.
John McNeill has received the 1997 Dignity/USA Prophetic Service Award "In Recognition of over 25 years of extraordinary work on behalf of the Catholic Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Community;" and the People of Soulforce Award in 2000 to John and his partner for "lifelong commitment to justice, mercy and truth". In 2000 he retired from leading seminars at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center, Bangor, PA.