On August 28, the first day of the academic year, Franciscan University’s well-recognized Christian Marriage professor marched into class wearing nothing but his self-proclaimed birthday suit. The full-body Hershey Kiss costume came complete with a tinfoil-consistency hat and monochromatic body ensemble.
Welcome to the life of one of the Vatican’s trusted canon lawyers, Philip C.L. Gray, J.C.L. The Denison, Texas native has by most accounts succeeded in never leaving The Lone Star State: he currently resides with his wife of nearly 37 years in the center of “North Texas.”
“That’s the official name for it on the license we have” said Gray, citing the origin of his property’s name. It’s an expansive plot of land totaling roughly 20 acres, space put to generous use on a regular basis. From household retreats to family reunions, Gray ensures that the estate is always frequented by welcome visitors; he regularly invites his classes to visit the property for a very specific purpose.
“If I had to pick one, I would say Tabitha would be my favorite” said Gray, of course referencing the healthy yak population he invites students to visit. Located on a separate 35-acre plot of land, a thriving yak farm, headlined by fan-favorite Milton, the resident bull, is good for an official yak breeder registration with the International Yak Association.
The manner by which Gray found his wife proves equally unorthodox. “I met her in a state mental hospital,” he said. “She was the music therapist, and I was the social worker.”
A subsequent marriage on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has graciously generated six children, a grandchild and a calling. “To me, that’s my real vocation” said Gray. “Family first.” Gray himself, as one of 12 children, was the loving product of the 60-year marriage his parents enjoyed.
Gray’s career as canon lawyer seemed God’s plan from the start. Gray was quickly impressed with a select monk at his Benedictine-run college preparatory school in Subiaco, Arkansas. He was “a very gentle, very careful man, truly in love with Christ and his Church,” said Gray. “To see him consecrate the Blessed Sacrament, his face would just change.”
Said Gray, “Someone told me … that he was the canon lawyer for the monastery. And I thought, ‘If that’s what canon law does for somebody, that’s what I want to do.’” With no prior experience in canon law, but encouraged by a monk’s authenticity, Gray gave the field a try with encouragement from his Dominican spiritual director.
Gray has since taught for 20 years, albeit with a six-year break to allow for a focus on private practice which has since discontinued in 2015. He said the teaching profession has taught him much with regard to circumstance and virtue alike. “When I prepare a class or when I’m going to give a test, my biggest concern is how the information I give can be used practically by the students.”
With a residence on an original 1836 homestead site and a heart for canon law and educational ministry alike, Professor Philip C. Gray has taught 10 individual courses since landing at Franciscan University: everything from upper-tier Honors to Christian Moral Principles, The Ecclesial Nature of Theology to Catholic Social Teaching.
In the early 2000s, Gray also installed the Canon Law program in Steubenville. “I was the first professor that taught the first classes in canon law here,” he said.
Today, Gray lends his talents to the St. Joseph Foundation as both president and canon lawyer. “I do the same things for the St. Joseph Foundation that I did in private practice, it’s just a different law system,” said Gray.
Gray said the organization has clients in a variety of canon law situations, including “contract disputes, personal disputes, marriage annulments, church closures, defamations, removal of pastors and liturgical issues.”
The same man who once served as vice president of Catholics United for the Faith can be found addressing invested undergraduates. And in true Franciscan form, his students regularly learn as much from his example of authentic Catholic living as they do from his dedicated curriculums.