by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When and Where did you attend college, what degree did you earn, what was your favorite course, and why it was your
Bob: I graduated from Boston College in 1982 with a BA in Philosophy. I remember a course on death and dying that I found fascinating because the professor challenged us to think of life beyond death by the cycles of nature, seasons, growing, seeding, dying, growing. Something new for me. Some years later I received an Honorary Doctorate from Boston College for my ministry and work.
Gordon: When did you attend St. John Seminary? What degree did you earn, what was the most challenging course that you took and why was it challenging?
Bob: I entered the seminary in 1984 and was ordained a diocesan priest for the Archdiocese of Boston in 1987, with a Masters in Divinity. I recall an ecclesiology course I was required to take and the priest/professor accused me of plagiarism on a paper I wrote about celibacy. I had critiqued a current teaching that Jesus was celibate, arguing that the term as we understand it could not be applied to the ancient Jewish community and culture and that there was no scriptural evidence as well. At a contentious meeting with the professor, he finally admitted he had only read it once and that he thought it was "too sophisticated" for me and that I must have "lifted it" from the National Catholic Reporter. He changed the grade to a B+. It was one of many warning signs I missed about ordained ministry.
Gordon: You were once a priest. Why did you leave the priesthood?
Bob: I will honestly say that I never quite fit in. I am a person highly motivated by sign and symbol, but only when the meaning points to truth. I chafed under the expectations of a hierarchy that in my opinion was fascinated by and drowning in pomp and power, using fear and oppression as tools for control. As I look at it now, "priestly formation" cultivated a secretive, closed, immature culture of unhealthy male thinking. And I bought into it, at first. But increasingly I found myself at odds with many of the positions on women, on LGBTQ+ people, on entitlement and privilege and power, and the more outspoken I became, the less I was valued. That's when I began to see the toxicity of the clerical culture. There was so much joy in ministry, but the darkness of the clerical caste began to take its toll.
Then the sexual abuse of children was thrust into the light, and the abuse of power that surrounded that horror was revealed. Some of us became quite vocal about our disgust for the hierarchy and the desperate need to help the victims. Priests like me were seen by many colleagues and the hierarchy as unfaithful because, in their minds, we betrayed their rule of Obedient Silence. Then, in the early 2000's, the Archdiocese decided to close nearly 90 parishes and sell church buildings and their surrounding properties, massively displacing whole faith communities. We all knew the archdiocese was starved for money. The inner city parish where I was pastor was ordered closed. The parish encompassed the largest public housing community in New England, made up of old Irish, Latino and African immigrants, and even some wealthy folks from the gentrified areas. The parish was situated in a neighborhood with rampant drug abuse, violence, poverty, yet offered free ESL classes, multiple addiction recovery programs, a very large food pantry, a youth center and bilingual Masses and catechesis. This parish community offered hope and love and acceptance to the poor and the marginalized. None of that mattered to the ordinary and his advisors. It was at that point that I asked myself, if they think the church does not belong here, in this place of joy and sadness and need, then I don't belong here. I took my leave from ministry. I chose joy.
Gordon: When were you a Consultant for Outreach and Reconciliation for the Paulists, and what were your primary responsibilities?
Bob: I was hired by The Paulist Center in Boston because I had done some training at Harvard Law school in negotiation, mediation and difficult conversations and I was able to use those skills and my own experience to reach out to alienated Catholics for listening and dialogue. The position required the creation of a safe space environment centered on a spirituality of openness, welcome and inclusion. A large segment of people I worked with were women, LGBTQ+ Catholics, and people who were either victims of sexual abuse by clergy or their family and friends. But in that position I learned far more through the power of forgiveness and hope and courage that so many of them brought to the table.
Gordon: What positions did you have at The American Red Cross of Massachusetts and what were your primary responsibilities?
Bob: I had experience in ministry that required effective volunteer management and leadership skills, so I was hired by the Massachusetts Red Cross as Director of Volunteer Services. I helped recruit, train and empower volunteers to serve in the multiple roles available at the Red Cross. After five years I was promoted to the National American Red Cross in Washington DC and served as National Director of Volunteer Engagement. The position was similar to the one in Massachusetts but on the scale of thousands, and it included developing and implementing a new program called Volunteer Relations, which helped in issue/dispute resolution and advocacy for volunteers across the nation.
Gordon: You are currently the Director of Volunteer Programs at The Trustees of Reservations. What are your primary responsibilities?
Bob: Now back in Massachusetts, I am so honored to be working with the amazing staff and volunteers of The Trustees, again in the field of volunteer management. It is such a privilege to work for an organization dedicated to conservation, ecology, preservation, climate adaptation - and one committed to creating spaces of inclusivity and belonging, where all are truly welcome.
Gordon: When did you work full-time as an artist" What medium do you use?. What did you enjoy painting the most?
Bob: I began training with my art teacher, artist Rita Guzzi, over 30 years ago and I still spend time painting with her. She is 95 years old and totally amazing and I am still learning and growing. I paint in acrylics on canvas and I also do some watercolor work. I enjoy seascapes most of all, because I grew up and now live by the sea. But I love a rich variety of subjects, from portraits to animals to landscapes to scenes of crowds at a cafe. I love painting; it is when I am truly happiest in life. Painting is joy, and I am all about joy.
Gordon: How do you promote your art?
Bob: I mostly promote my work online. Facebook and Instagram have helped. I also exhibit my work in shows at our city's art association gallery. I desperately need a website, but I have zero talent for that!
Gordon: How difficult is it to continue as an artist while working full-time?
Bob: It is very challenging in some ways, just to find the time, but I work hard to make sure I am painting as often as possible in my home studio. I love to paint early in the morning, but I take advantage of moments throughout the day.
Gordon: Who is your favorite artist and why is that artist your favorite?
Bob: John Singer Sargent. His elegant use of color and light create depth and drama, often in the unexpected and daring ways he approached his subjects. I am fascinated by his use of light and I often use his works for inspiration.
Gordon: Do you believe that Sacred Art can bring us closer to God? If so, in which way?
Bob: I know for me that I touch the transcendent when I paint. I know and feel that because there is just a blank canvas, pools of liquid color, brushes of various sizes and conditions - and then a miracle takes place, as something is created and takes on a life of its own and can affect the feelings and experiences of others. I am so often startled by something I have painted. It may sound curious, but I wonder sometimes about the how: how did that painting come to be, knowing full well my hand did the work, but how it could happen is a delightful mystery to me. People call it a gift, but to me, it is only a gift if I am giving it, sharing it, letting others into the mystery. Deep down I know this flows from God, who loves me, who is love. It is certainly sacred to me and I have had countless experiences when people have shared that sacred experience through one of my paintings.
Gordon: What is the difference between Religious Art and Sacred Art?
Bob: I once thought of religious art as those specific works that adorn places of worship or religious learning, across most faiths. That was until a created a painting that now hangs in the sanctuary of the faith community where I worship. The painting is of an utterly tranquil bend in the river that flows near the church, from a photo I took one day, and Psalm 23 breathed on to the canvas. It is only sacred or religious if the artist has shared love in art. It all comes down to love.