Utahn lands a 'cool' job as a Catholic priest
Decades before his ordination before he attended school in the shadow of the Vatican, before he lay prostrate on the floor of a packed Utah cathedral, before a Catholic bishop placed his hands on him and anointed him with balsamic oil Christopher Gray knew he wanted to be a priest.
He's known since second grade, when, during his first communion, he thought it would make a "cool vocation."
His friends didn't view the job in the same light, so he kept his holy aspirations to himself, at least around his peers. At home, though, he talked from time to time about committing to the clergy.
The 30-year-old Gray fulfilled his childhood ambition last month at Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine in a moving, symbolism-filled ritual, but his path to the priesthood wound through math classes at the University of Utah and reporting duties at a Catholic newspaper before he ever stepped foot in a seminary.
Mass appeal • As a youngster, Gray loved going to Mass whether at Bountiful's St. Olaf or Salt Lake City's Cathedral of the Madeleine, where he sang in the choir. He also took piano lessons and played the organ at Catholic parishes as well as Bountiful's Cross of Christ Lutheran Church.
"If you like music," said Gray's mother, Maria Cruz Gray, director of Hispanic ministry at the Salt Lake City diocese, "automatically he will be your friend."
Before he graduated from Judge Memorial Catholic High School, Gray told his parents he planned to attend the seminary, but they told him to go to college first and "see what it was like to be a normal guy."
"We never told him 'go' or 'don't go' [to the seminary]," Cruz said. "We said, 'Take it easy. Think it through.' "
So Gray dutifully went to the U., where he graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and Spanish literature.
"He loved studying," said his father, Forrest Gray, a deacon in the Salt Lake City diocese. "He has superior language abilities. He is fluent in and can read and write Latin, English and Spanish."
Gray then worked for Intermountain Catholic, but the seminary still beckoned.
The deciding moment came in 2006, when he covered an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at the Swift meatpacking plant in Hyrum. The crackdown happened Dec. 12, the same day as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major festival for Latino Catholics. He saw a day of joy turn to despair. Families were invaded by uncertainty. Loved ones were deported. Children were redistributed among relatives.
"It struck me as evil," Gray said. "It wasn't justice."
This raid devastated Gray's St. Olaf parish, too. When he saw the suffering, Gray committed to becoming a priest so he could help heal the pain through Christ.
When in Rome • In 2007, he went to Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore. Two years later, Bishop John C. Wester, leader of Utah's 300,000 Catholics, sent Gray to study in Rome, where he finished his general theology courses at Pontifical Gregorian University.
In fact, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his historic resignation, Gray was in the Eternal City, studying for exams.
"For the first week I forced myself not to pay attention [to the news]," Gray said. "I had finals to worry about."
But during the following conclave, Gray spent time praying among the crowds in St. Peter's Square. And when the black smoke from the Sistine Chapel's chimney turned white signaling the election of a pope throngs swarmed the area for the introduction of Argentina's Bishop Jorge Bergoglio as the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"People were like, 'Who?' " Gray recalled. "People around me flipped through the cardinal bios they'd printed off Wikipedia, trying to see who the new pope was."
Gray, who had served Mass as a deacon to the retired pope and the new Pope Francis, noticed similarities shared by the two men.
"Both men celebrated the Mass with great piety and devotion," he said. "Both are very holy men."
Gray will return to Rome in a few months to finish his advanced degree in Christology at Pontifical Lateran University.
"Ordination is not the same as graduation," Gray said. "It's part of an ongoing process of academic, spiritual, pastoral and human formation that continues throughout [a priest's] life."
His big day • On the morning of June 29, Gray picked up a friend at Salt Lake City International Airport who had flown from Chicago to witness the big moment: Gray's ordination.
The two men went to Salt Lake Roasting Co., where another friend met them for a cup of coffee. Afterward, the friends made a quick stop at Harmon's for shoelaces and headed for the Cathedral of the Madeleine, where a crowd had already gathered.
"I put the car in park and was immediately mugged by people," Gray said. "I went to the secret place of solitude, the organ dome, for my morning prayers."
Before the ceremony, Gray went to the rectory, where the priests and deacons were preparing for Mass. His father was there, and the two helped each other into their robes.
The Ordination Mass began with a procession led by four Knights of Columbus, the altar servers, the cross bearer and the Madeleine choir. The lectors, deacons and priests followed with Wester at the end.
The ordination rite a sacred ceremony that dates back thousands of years came after the gospel reading and began when Wester presented Gray to the congregants and asked for their consent to his ordination, given through applause.
"I turned around and people were clapping. â¦ I'm not the biggest fan of the clapping thing," Gray said with a smile. "But they wouldn't stop."
As the applause died down, Wester delivered his homily, the bulk of it advice to Gray. He stressed the importance of a priest's oneness with Christ and with his congregation in sharing the word of God.
"To [the priest] has been given the word of God," Wester said. "That is what makes him a priest."
After Wester's words, Gray stood before the bishop for his examination and promise of obedience. Gray placed his hands in the bishop's and pledged obedience to the church, the diocese, Wester and succeeding bishops.
"It's one of the most humanly important moments," Gray said. "The bishop says, 'May God, who has begun this good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.' â¦ It's not about me. Christ has to be center."
Showing his utter humility before God, Gray lay flat on the floor while the congregation recited the Litany of the Saints, asking the Holy Spirit to come upon the soon-to-be priest and the saints to pray for him.
Wester then placed his hands on Gray's head, followed by other priests in attendance. Next, the bishop anointed Gray's hands with chrism, a fragrant, consecrated oil made from olives and balsam.
"[Wester] poured the oil on my hands and it flowed everywhere," Gray said. "It smelled wonderful."
After the Mass, Gray stood before the altar and gave his first blessings as a priest. At the front of the line stood Wester, followed by Gray's family. Behind them, parishioners packed the center aisle, standing three or four wide to the back of the nave. Nearly two hours later, the final congregant stepped forward to receive a blessing.
His next dream • Now that Gray is ordained, his mother worries some people will be cruel to her son because of the negative headlines surrounding Catholic priests in the wake of the abuse scandal.
"Ninety-eight percent of priests pay for what 2 percent did wrong," Cruz said. "I hope no one is mean to him. He just wants to serve people."
Especially in a small parish out in Utah's "boonies" that's the dream assignment of Utah's newest Catholic priest. Gray wants to serve where he can know parishioners personally.
"That's a more fulfilling day dream of mine," he said. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just a romantic."
Maybe. But there is no uncertainty about Gray being a priest, a knowledge that brings a light to his eyes and a grin to his face.