Artist, Prophet, Priest

McNichols.Mass“William Hart McNichols has often lived in two worlds — priest and artist, tender of flocks and solitary soul, openly gay man and defender of the Catholic Church.”

Thus begins a recent article by John Wenzel in The Denver Post celebrating the opening of “Light in All Darkness: Images and Icons by William Hart McNichols,” now at the McNichols Civic Center building in downtown Denver through January 6.

The son of Colorado governor Stephen McNichols (1957-1963) and nephew of Denver mayor William McNichols (1968-1983), Fr. Bill’s childhood was steeped in politics and religion. Though he endured years of bullying in grade school, which continued during high school, art, and humor, became a way to mask his suffering. A graduate of Regis Jesuit High School, he would later return to Regis as a Jesuit scholastic, and establish the high school’s first art program. And among the Jesuits at Regis he had found a home in the atmosphere of Ignatian spirituality.

From the age of nineteen I was brought into the life of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which consists of four weeks of prayer and meditation on the life of Christ. The retreat culminates with a glorious burst of light, which launches the retreatant into a life of ministry of “finding God in all things.” Once these words settle in your heart, they never leave you. They become the way you live in the world with its great variety of people, as well as the Creation, both damaged and abundant.

By some miracle of grace I have come to know Fr. Bill as both friend and mentor. Through the years of our friendship, I can think of no better way to describe his twin vocation as artist and priest than his own words, imbibed from Ignatian spirituality: “What you gaze upon, you become.” He has put it this way: “You gaze on the icon, but it gazes on you too. We need to gaze on truly conversational, truly loving images, images that will return our love.”

Though Fr. Bill is no longer a Jesuit, he remains a priest in service to the people of Albuquerque. He continues to discern the movements of the Spirit in a world “both damaged and abundant,” a presence of God in all things which find expression in his breathtaking icons. There is a “childlike awe in being called to create along with the Holy Spirit,” he says. And for the viewer, contemplating religious art “can renew our intimacy with God and the childlike stance Jesus insists upon in the Gospels.” I would say it this way: In Fr. Bill’s iconography, mysticism meets prophecy in a quietly explosive way.

On the evening of September 20, I attended the opening of “Light in All Darkness” with my friend and colleague, Fr. Kevin Burke, SJ, Regis University’s Vice President of Mission. My son Isaiah (20) and daughter Grace (15) also attended. It was an incredible gift for us all to be there.

If you live or find yourself this fall anywhere near the Denver area, I would urge you to visit the exhibit if you can. Among all the images, I am certain you will encounter at least one that speaks to your heart. Fr. Bill’s sacred images and icons can also be viewed here.

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Santo Toribio Romo y Gonzalez, Patron of Immigrants, by William Hart McNichols. Provided by Denver Arts & Venues
Santo Toribio Romo y Gonzalez, Patron of Immigrants, by William Hart McNichols

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