Art deepens faith, says internationally renowned Sulpician priest
Sulpician Father Peter W. Gray unrolls his portrait of Pope John Paul I at his home in Reisterstown, Maryland, March 4, 2022. The portrait was commissioned for Theological College in Washington. (SNC Photo/Tyler Orsburn)
REISTERSTOWN, Md. (CNS) — Carefully unrolling a huge canvas on the living room floor of his Reisterstown home in early March, Sulpician Father Peter W. Gray unveiled a striking image of Christ that he considers one of his best works.
In vibrant colors, Jesus is depicted at the Last Supper just before he breaks unleavened bread. A thin golden halo encircles a masculine face with a square jaw, while a cutout in the neckline of his burgundy tunic reveals a priestly collar.
“It’s meant to show Jesus inviting you to be a part of it,” Father Gray said, comparing the painting to one of his children.
“I want the viewer to be part of it by coming to him and letting him feed you,” he told the Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The oil painting was completed 12 years ago, but has yet to find a buyer. For an internationally acclaimed artist, it’s a frustration, but not one that distracts Father Gray from his craft.
“I’m waiting for the right house – the right chapel, the right retirement home, the right parish, the right diocese, the right bishop,” the priest said as he rolled up the canvas and laid it quietly in the corner of a room with walls overflowing with his art. “God will give me the right person.”
For Father Gray, art is his full-time ministry. He spends hours a day working on a paint-splattered kitchen table creating sacred and secular art.
Known for both his contemporary realism and also his abstract works, the priest’s images have included paintings of Saint John Paul II and Pope John Paul I.
He was commissioned to paint the portrait of Pope Francis for the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington and also painted several panels depicting Pentecost which were installed in the neo-Gothic frames of an old stained glass window at the Theological College in Washington. The seminary, run by the Sulpicians, is affiliated with the Catholic University of America.
In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Father Gray’s works include paintings by Mother Mary Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of color; Father Sulpicien Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Society of Priests of Saint-Sulpice, the official name of the Sulpicians; and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. These and his other paintings can be found at St. Mary’s Spiritual Center and Historic Site in Baltimore.
He also designed the stained glass windows for the chapel at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson and granted permission for his works to be used with “The Journey to Racial Justice,” Archbishop William E. Lori’s 2019 pastoral reflection on racism. .
Showing a playful side, Father Gray sometimes incorporates faces of Hollywood stars into his religious art. A painting of St. Luke in his home features the face of Ben Affleck, while a painting of St. Mark looks like Keanu Reeves.
Father Gray’s unique ministry began as a child in Erie, Pennsylvania. By age 4, he was copying paintings by Rubens, Caravaggio, and others he saw in encyclopedias and religious calendars. He recalled that his talent genuinely scared his mother.
His parents enrolled him in a summer art program at what was then Mercyhurst College. There, the 5-year-old prodigy studied alongside college students.
Father Gray, who celebrates Mass only at home, says he sometimes gets so caught up in painting that he loses track of time. He said he was “unconsciously praying” with every brushstroke.
“I’m going to look up and realize I just spent five hours working on something,” said Father Gray, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.
Visitors are captivated by Father Gray’s work, according to Deacon Vito Piazza Sr., director of the St. Mary’s Spiritual Center and Historic Site.
“His art brings us closer to God,” said Deacon Piazza. “He tells us the extraordinary story of the people who walked before us.”
Sulpician Father Thomas Ulshafer, a former provincial head of his religious society, said God had given Father Gray a “special talent” and he was using it well.
“Many people inside and outside the Sulpician community are drawn to his art, especially his portraits,” said Father Ulshafer. “He can capture a person’s uniqueness.”
Having previously worked with the United Nations and the Vatican’s Pathway to Peace program, Father Gray has visited 72 countries and is passionate about helping those in need. He uses proceeds from his art sales to support a mission in Nepal and homeless people in Baltimore.
With his eyesight deteriorating and age creeping up on the 69-year-old priest, Father Gray said he was working feverishly to produce as many works of beauty as possible while he had the capacity.
“I don’t do this art for myself,” he said. “It’s going to help save people.”
Matysek is editor of the Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.