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A Divine Commission

A Divine Commission

Paul Mullally ’66 Paints First Jesuit Pope 

Five miles west of the Nile River the red-hued desert gives way to the Great Pyramids of Giza—the lone ancient wonder still in existence. It is here where Paul Mullally ’66 unknowingly began his 42-year journey to the Vatican.  

In 2016 Paul Mullally received a call from Fr. Bill Watson S.J., a family friend, and faculty member at Seattle University.

“Paul, how would you like to paint a portrait of Pope Francis,” he asked. “I went numb,” Paul says, “how could I refuse?”

Within the week Fr. Watson, S.J. showed up at Paul's door with Fr. David Nazar, S.J., Director of the Pontificio Instituto Orientale, and Fr. Alan Fogarty, S.J., President of the Gregorian University Foundation. The Jesuit priests had flown 5,600 miles from Rome to see if Paul was the real deal.   
The commission was to honor the Pontificio’s Centennial, and what better way to celebrate than with a portrait of the newly-ordained Pope. The search for an artist had led them to Seattle. Years earlier Paul had created a painting of St. Therese of Lisieux for his father. Upon his father’s death the painting was willed to Fr. Watson, S.J., and eventually found its way into the private quarters of Pope Francis, also an avid devotee of St Therese. These papal connections to the Mullally name would continue with the later appointment of Fr. Watson, S.J. to the Pontificio’s board.   
Paul suggested an unorthodox idea when he heard that the mission of the organization was to reach out and help the Eastern churches—rather than paint a traditional portrait, he could depict the Pope administering to Syrian refugees, a nod to the recent Papal visit to Greece amidst the refugee crisis. They loved the idea.   


Paul’s artistic gift had simmered for years. As a young child he kept himself busy copying newspaper comics and creating pencil sketches. Computers didn’t exist, there was no internet, and with a family of 12 children little time or money for art classes. Paul struggled academically at Seattle Prep.

“I was so lost by my senior year that I was just memorizing everything and understanding nothing,” he says.

He flunked a class his last quarter and graduated with a 1.9 GPA. The Vietnam War was calling, and Paul assumed he would get drafted. But that summer, divine intervention walked through the family’s door in the form of Fr. John Fitterer, S.J. (the president of Seattle University (SU) at the time). He persuaded Paul to go to summer school and apply to college. Paul raised his grades and got accepted to SU. He continued to struggle until he found the art department. He hit his stride, raised his GPA and finally graduated with a BFA in fine art.  
Paul spent the next nine months traveling the world, backpack and watercolors in tow. He hitchhiked across North Africa, making his way through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, soaking up inspiration. He crossed the Egyptian border to sit atop the largest pyramid in Giza, and sketched the vast, foreign landscape. Later, he sought out Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains, where he climbed the inner stairwell of the 1,700-year-old Buddha of Bamiyan. After summiting the 170-foot rock statue, he sat down on the valley floor and painted for hours. Years later, in 2001, that Buddha was blown up by the Taliban. Remembered on paper, Paul’s travels produced a series of 25 watercolors and served as an endless reservoir for future paintings.  
A 26-year old Paul returned to Seattle with a desire to paint professionally but felt he lacked technical training. He spent the next five years at various painting schools, including three years at the Art Students League in New York and the Salmagundi Club, and two years at the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. Paul hit his stride as a painter.

He says, “my eyes were opened, and this experience left no doubt about my calling in life.”  


Paul is an accomplished painter with his work shown at invitationals and museums across the country. His paintings are the recipient of numerous awards, and he is a Master Signature Member of the Oil Painters of American and a Fellow in the American Society of Marine Artists. In 2012, Paul was invited by China’s Ministry of Culture to participate in the London Olympics’ Creative Cities Collection art exhibit. Paul was selected to represent the United State at the exhibits opening ceremony. But none of this could prepare him for the commission of a lifetime.  
Paul spent the better part of a year painting the commissioned portrait of Pope Francis. BBC art documentaries provided ongoing inspiration and emotional support.

“The Catholic Church was such a big part of history, especially the Renaissance, with all those artists painting papal things,” Paul says.

Paul realized there is a daily tedium that goes along with painting that you just have to muddle through.
Ironically, religious paintings are not indicative of Paul’s body of work. Sedate landscapes and regal portraits are more his style. Prior to the Pope’s portrait, the two religious paintings he produced were at the bequest of his father, a deeply devoted Catholic. But it’s these religious themed paintings—of St. Therese and the Madonna—that brought him acclaim, and ultimately the opportunity with the Vatican.     


In June 2017 Paul finished the painting. That fall he and his family flew to Rome for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, where the painting would be unveiled for the Pope. Anticipation was in the air, not only for the unveiling but also for the answer to a unique request. Paul had asked a special favor of the Vatican. His daughters had yet to receive their First Communion, so Paul thought what better place to do that than in Rome. And, who better to perform it than the Pope. It was worth a shot. Vatican officials told him most likely “no” but “Francis is just the type of Pope who might.”  
The painting was unveiled in the historical library of the Pontificio Instituto Orientale, to a handful of dignitaries and supporters. In what Paul recalls as “one of the biggest honors of his life,” he finally came face-to-face with Pope Francis. “It was the culmination of a year of pent-up emotion,” Paul says, “and honestly, I can't remember the words we exchanged as we were holding hands. The feeling was too great.” What Paul does remember is that the pressure and commitment had paid off. “

When I saw the expression in the Pope’s face when he looked at the painting, I knew I had captured him. I then looked at the painting and I looked at his face and I said to myself, “Yes, I got it right!”   

And as far as that special request? The Pope did not disappoint. Annelise and Ise did receive their sacrament of Holy Communion that day. Turns out the Pope is a great fan of exceptions.  

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