An exhibit earlier this year featured the art of William Hart McNichols, an openly gay priest and LGBT advocate known for the many for beautiful icons he has created such as “The Passion of Matthew Shepard.”
The exhibit, “Light in All Darkness: Images and Icons by William Hart McNichols” was hosted at the McNichols Civic Center building in Denver this fall. It profiled many of his famous pieces, but also shed a light into his life and journey, reported The Know.
Throughout his life as a priest and artist, McNichols has also been an LGBT advocate. In the 1980s, he ministered with people who had HIV/AIDS as part of a hospice team out of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. He also published a book during this period, Stations of the Cross for a Person with AIDS, which contained original drawings based on Christ’s hands.
In 2002, as the scandal of clergy sexual abuse ripped through the U.S. Church, he defended gay priests against unjust scapegoating. He himself had come out as gay in 1983. This public witness led him to leave the Jesuits after nearly forty years. He remains a priest in active ministry with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
One of McNichols’ most famous icons, which was included in the exhibit, is “The Passion of Matthew Shepard.” Written Created after the hate crime which caused Shepard’s torturous death in 1998, the icon depicts the victim’s unclothed upper body in bright red with white streaks left by tears down his face. The police officer who found Shepard said these streaks were the only parts of Shepard’s face not covered in blood. McNichols dedicated the icon to the many LGBT youth who die by suicide or are victims of hate crimes each year.
Another LGBT-related icon is “Francis ‘neath the Bitter Tree,” which depicts St. Francis of Assisi clutching Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is depicted as a gay man with sores similar to those AIDS patients get from kaposi sarcoma. And above Jesus’ head, where tradition says Pontius Pilate mockingly had “King of the Jews” written, McNichols has written, “AIDS Leper, Drug User, Homosexual.”
While these icons and other art created by McNichols are often about difficult topics, the artist explained to The Know:
“‘People often say icons seem sad to them, but they’re really not. . .They’re really kind of imploring and begging for compassion. I’m trying to cause a metanoia (spiritual conversion) in the person looking at it, because the icon is also looking at you. It asks for love, but it doesn’t work if it’s too sentimental or pretty.’
“That said, McNichols wants ‘Light in All Darkness’ to be an expression of joy and happiness, not a solemn meditation on the dire state of the world. Having survived a heart collapse and open-heart surgery in 2012, and now on the cusp of turning 70 while celebrating his 40th year as a priest, McNichols is open to whatever God has next for him.
“‘It’s better to retire than to be asked to retire,’ he said, laughing. ‘I prayed to God (after open-heart surgery) and said, “Why did I come back? What didn’t I do yet?” because I couldn’t understand why I didn’t die. And I realized it’s because the icons hadn’t gotten out yet. They’re not mine and don’t belong to me (McNichols never signs his paintings). I realized it’s because it’s God’s will to get them out.'”
Time described him as “among the most famous creators of Christian iconic images in the world.” A student of Robert Lentz, McNichol has created 303 icons to this point along with numerous other art pieces. His work is known internationally. For more about McNichols’ life and work, you can view the 2016 documentary, “The Boy Who Found Gold.”
McNichols’ life and art are poignant reminders of just how much gay priests give to the Church and to the world. Consider how many people would not have experienced his pastoral care and been moved powerfully by his art if McNichols were laicized after coming out in 1983. Then multiply that good by the thousands of priests there are.
Sadly, McNichols’ 2002 witness in defense of gay priests who are being scapegoated for clergy sexual abuse is still relevant. Indeed, gay priests and religious face new attacks against them as the Church experiences another wave of revelations of abuse and demands for action. That is why New Ways Ministry relaunched our “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” campaign to express gratitude for gay priests and religious while calling on church leaders to lift the ban on accepting gay men to the priesthood.
To add your name to this show of gratitude and solidarity, click here.
“Light in All Darkness: Images and Icons by William Hart McNichols” is on display in Denver through January 6, 2019. For more information, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 24, 2018