|Msgr. William Smith
|John M. Janaro
St. Joseph's seminary sits on a hill along Seminary Avenue, a street
that winds its way up from the homes and stores, restaurants, bakeries,
and delicatessens that gather together on the Hudson River to form
Yonkers, New York. From its gold dome to its foundation stone, St.
Joseph's radiates strength and permanence; if it could speak it would
probably say to America, "The Church is here to stay!"
Yonkers touches the northern border of the Bronx, and though some people
call it "the sixth borough" of New York City, it likes to assert its own
identity-a sense of neighborhood community built on the shared
perspective of the Polish, Italian, and Irish ethnic groups that make
Yonkers their home. The flavor of Yonkers is tangible, like that extra
spice you notice in the spaghetti sauce that tells you that the
restaurant cook makes it the same way at home for his kids. At the same
time there is that universal touch that is distinctive to New York, an
area that has its eyes wide open to everything that is going on in the
All of these things are very much a part of St. Joseph's Seminary; the
fact that it is a major institution in one of the most important
Catholic dioceses in the world does not make it any less a part of the
neighborhood. And the institution is reflected substantially in the man
who is its Dean; a man who has lived his whole life in the shadow of St.
Joseph's, yet who also has a vital role to play in speaking to America
on behalf of the Church that St. Joseph's serves.
"My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all his people" (Ps. 116:12).
Msgr. William Smith is a priest perhaps best known for being in the "hot
seat" on critical issues in the public forum. In sensitive areas of
medical ethics, abortion, and homosexuality he has represented the voice
of the teaching Church, often on national television and radio. Yet
Msgr. Smith is a man who never intended to be a "celebrity" and who does
not especially seek the public eye. He speaks on behalf of the Church-on
behalf of the diocese he is pledged to serve, and in recognition of the
duties inherent in the diocesan priesthood. Msgr. Smith is a man of
duty; his sense of duty, though, is not some impersonal thing, but
rather it stems from a profound sense of encountering Christ in the
various and often unpredictable circumstances that form the substance of
Becoming the Dean of St. Joseph's Seminary was perhaps the last thing
that William Smith would have predicted while growing up in Yonkers.
Born on August 4,1939, the youngest of three boys, William's family was
characterized by quiet but steady devotion, a sense of duty to the
Church and the obligations of life, and a share in the values of a
heavily Catholic neighborhood. "The Lord alone was their leader, no
strange god was with him" (Deut. 32:12). William has nothing but fond
memories of a supportive childhood, one marked in particular by a great
deal of intimacy with the parish priests, who frequently visited the
Smith home. The priests were seen as members of the family, like
"uncles" who seemed to play as much a part in the family upbringing and
formation as anyone else. Everywhere young William turned he saw a unity
of influence and activity, despite the everyday problems that are part
of the lives of everyone. "The home, the school, and the Church," the
three basic sources of his personal growth, "were all playing the same
tune, resonating the same values, confirming and reconfirming the same
St. Denis parish played a large part in his boyhood years. Msgr. Joseph
O'Connor, the pastor since 1921, was a revered and saintly man. His
associates were often youthful and close to the children. All three of
the Smith brothers were altar boys, and William thus had the opportunity
to get to know the priests in a particularly intimate way. Often, Fr.
Quill and Fr. Marshall would take William and some of the other boys on
outings as a reward for doing the early Masses that no one else wanted
to do. By third grade, William had already begun to think that he wanted
to be just like these dedicated and friendly men whom he saw every day.
"Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord is near" (Phil.
4:4-5). William was attracted to the priesthood in a very concrete
fashion; he wanted to imitate these priests because he saw in their
lives something profound, a deep commitment underlying the variety of
After grade school, William attended Xavier High School, run by the
Society of Jesus. Here he learned Latin and Greek, played sports, and
became involved in charitable activities. The Jesuits too were
exemplary, yet William still felt drawn to the parish life, though he
could not give detailed reasons why. As graduation approached and he
determined to enter the diocesan seminary, he remembers that "I became
the object of a vocations campaign" by the ever-zealous Jesuits. "Why
don't you want to be a Jesuit," they asked him, "and oddly enough I kept
saying I didn't want to be a teacher." The diversity of the parish
duties, their intimate connection with daily life, attracted him and
called upon him to commit himself to a kind of service defined solely by
the day to day requirements of the Church and the needs of the people.
"Do not live in fear, little flock. It has pleased your Father to give
you the kingdom" (Lk. 12:32). The parish priest, he realized, serves as
that intimate and necessary link between the Catholic people and the
teaching, ruling, and sanctifying aspects of their Church. When William
graduated from high school in 1957, the Church, under Pope Pius XII,
reflected deeply the solidarity of all her members. This reflection
formed the whole of William's boyhood experience and solidified his
vocation; the Church in his early life seemed to be one large team,
"some people were guards and some were ends, but there was no question
where that goal line was."
At this time, however, his understanding was more practical than
theoretical. William devoted a good deal of time to following the
statistics of the New York Yankees, and at first, things such as
Mystici Corporis and Humani generis sounded like names of
diseases to him. A fellow student at Cathedral College, James O'Connor,
was by contrast quite interested in these weighty theological matters.
The two began by being on opposite sides of various discussions and
arguments, but their relationship quickly developed into a friendship
that lasted throughout their seminary years and indeed to this very day
as colleagues on the faculty. After two years of general studies at
Cathedral, the students made their dramatic entrance into the formidable
seminary of St. Joseph.
In the year 1959, such an entrance brought a seminarian into a world of
unparalleled discipline and regimentation. From 5:30 in the morning
until 10:00 at night, every minute was accounted for, divided among
prayer, classes, study, and recreation. It seems that the object of the
regimentation and order was to keep a seminarian from performing any one
activity for too long. This training would then carry over into parish
life, which-although structurally different from seminary
life-nevertheless is characterized by constantly changing demands on a
priest's attention. The seminary structure was designed to give the
priest the discipline and flexibility for this kind of life.
"The Lord is great and worthy to be praised in the city of our God" (Ps.
48:1). If a seminarian was at peace with himself and sure of his goal,
he could make it through the system, have a sense of humor about it,
even thrive on it. Msgr. Smith insists, "I enjoyed my time at the
seminary in as much as I was doing exactly what I wanted to do all the
time every day, although if you judged it by contemporary standards it
was a little bit stricter than Sing Sing prison!" All kidding aside,
however, the strictness was not slavish in that it was informed with a
clear purpose, and lived not only by the students but also by the
priests who comprised the faculty. Hence "what to outsiders may have
looked like a burden was actually a system of providential ways to
maximize your time and your personal development."
In addition, each class of seminarians developed their own special bond
of solidarity and friendship from the sharing of common activities and
the achievement of a common goal. William's class, however, was
particularly noteworthy because of a unique and ongoing event that
dominated his years of theological study.
On October 11, 1962 the seminarians at St. Joseph's were granted fifteen
extra minutes of recreation, something that was not often done. This,
however, was no ordinary day, for the entire seminary was gathered
around a television set to watch the opening of the Second Vatican
Council. The occasion was one of great solemnity, yet when the secular
television commentator announced that "the choir is now going to sing
'Come CREATED Spirit'" the seminarians roared with laughter.
For the next few years, the seminarians followed the Council with
enthusiasm, "like a World Series in motion." St. Joseph's dogma
professor, Fr. Austin Vaughan, was a man of towering stature both
intellectually and spiritually. Digesting the daily reports of
L'Observatore Romano, Fr. Vaughan would recapitulate for each class
the action on the Council floor the previous day. In this way, William's
class was trained to assimilate the authentic teaching of Vatican
II-viewed in continuity with the whole of the Church's tradition even
while that teaching was being formed. Another important influence on
William personally was Msgr. Daniel Flynn, who not only trained him to
be an altar boy as a youth, but also taught him almost all of his moral
theology in the Seminary.
Finally the much anticipated ordination day arrived on May 28,1966.
William was deeply moved by the ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral,
with his family present and Cardinal Spellman, just back from the
Council, imposing the hands that stretched forth through their
consecration from the hands of the very apostles themselves. As members
of the first class to be ordained after the close of Vatican II, William
and his fellows had particular obligations toward the renewal of the
Church. (Msgr. Smith remarks that, "As I often point out to Fr. Curran,
he's pre-Vatican II, I'm not.")
"He who calls us is trustworthy" (1 Thes. 5:24). The new Father Smith
became assistant pastor at St. Francis Church in Mt. Kisco, north of
Yonkers. Here he delved into the parish life just as he had always hoped
he would, ministering to a growing and active hospital, teaching the
children in school, giving sermons, and administering the sacraments. He
had immediately been placed in that formative role that so influenced
him as a child. Fr. Smith quickly learned about the trust that people
put in the Church. Here he was, young and unknown, coming into a parish
and taking a directive role in people's lives, some of whom had been
Catholics since long before he was born. They did not know him, but they
trusted the Church who sent him.
This in turn gave a tremendous sense of responsibility to the young
priest. Fr. Smith wondered how God could place such an important matter
in the hands of someone so young as himself, but he realized that, many
years ago, a young woman in Nazareth was entrusted with the task of
bearing the Word made-flesh. Indeed, God has a great deal of confidence
in young people who are devoted to Him.
Fr. Smith was nevertheless prepared to take on any other task at the
call of the bishop. He was already aware of the possibility that he
might end up teaching in the seminary; while still a seminarian, some of
his professors had "sounded him out" about the possibility of an
academic career. Although at that time he admitted that he had no desire
to be a teacher, he nevertheless pledged his loyalty to the wishes of
Now the will of New York's new bishop, Terence Cardinal Cooke, became
clear. At the recommendation of St. Joseph's seminary faculty, Fr. Smith
was to pursue advanced studies in moral theology with a view to becoming
involved in seminary life. After an interim year of teaching religion at
Stepinac High School, Fr. Smith got his passport and prepared to go to
Rome, along with Fr. O'Connor, who was studying dogmatic theology, and
all the other priests from the Archdiocese of New York who were being
sent to pursue doctoral degrees.
As with everything else, however, a diocesan priest can never be sure of
his travel plans. Cardinal Cooke had just been placed on the board of
directors of the Catholic University of America, as is common for
prominent members of the American hierarchy. The president of the school
complained to the Cardinal that "New York never sends us anyone unless
there's a war on," referring to the Archdiocese's policy of sending its
students to Rome. Cardinal Cooke, realizing that there was one
particular priest that he could send to Washington, D. C., replied,
"Well, we're sending one right now." Thus Msgr. Smith recalls that, when
the semester started, "I found myself going down the New Jersey
Turnpike, which is not the way to Rome."
"I do not run like a man who loses sight of the finish line" (Cor.
9:25). It was the fall of 1969, and when the priest-student arrived at
the Catholic University he soon discovered that "the silly season had
emerged" in the school of theology. Humanae vitae was a year old,
and some of the professors were no doubt wishing that this encyclical
would go away. The theology school was polarized over the issue of
dissent. Fr. Smith was deeply disturbed by the "politicization" of the
faith; the idea that one had to choose sides "for" or "against" Catholic
teaching at a Catholic university was to him ridiculous. It was as if
the team were breaking apart and the players running all over the field.
"He has kept my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from
stumbling" (Ps. 116:8). Fr. Smith quickly realized that his loyalty to
the Church and defense of her teaching would cause him difficulty with
the dissenters on the faculty. Recognizing that he had been sent to the
university for a specific purpose, Fr. Smith dug in his heals and set
about getting his degree as quickly as possible, determined not to
compromise the Church, but also determined not to allow those who were
abandoning their loyalty to the Church to have any excuse to hinder him
from accomplishing the task that the bishop had given him. His call was
to the formation of seminarians; there would be plenty of battles to be
fought and a great deal to be learned after he had his doctorate of
Sacred Theology. Thus he determined to make his stay at the university
and as smooth as fidelity to his principles would allow.
"The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (Rom. 10:8).
Through two turbulent years at Catholic University Fr. Smith kept a low
profile and fulfilled his academic requirements. Upon receiving his
degree, Fr. Smith attained a status far different than he had ever
expected. He was now a Moral Theologian, thrust forth in the midst of a
crisis. The Church once again placed great trust in him, and he was
determined to represent her teachings with faithfulness, through the
of the Spirit of God.
And there was yet another trust that he was about to receive from God.
The formation of His priests, the delicate nurturing of personal
vocations as they correspond to that highest call of the Lord through
His Church, to be conformed to Him in the fullness of His redemptive
action: a task such as this carries a tremendous responsibility,
particularly in these difficult years. Fr. Smith, however, was prepared
because he saw this task, like all others, as a fulfillment of his duty.
The duty of a diocesan priest is unique because it does not correspond
to a particular charism; rather it is universal within the local
circumstances of a parish or other diocesan service. The priest makes
the bishop "present" locally to his people; he participates in the
bishop's duty of shepherding the flock. This means the willingness to
accept a variety of assignments and, within each assignment, the variety
of responses that each circumstance requires.
Fr. Smith identifies this unpredictable variety as "both the beauty and
the challenge of the diocesan priesthood; whoever knocks on the door,
you answer the door." The duty of a diocesan priest can be expressed as
"opening the door." A parish priest in a rectory hears knocking all
during the course of the day, and on the other side of his front door he
might find anyone from the local mayor to a transient who needs money or
food to a kid from the neighborhood. Despite the variety of people,
needs, and situations, however, there is a profound underlying
consistency-it is onthe other side of that open door that the priest
finds, each and every time, the person of Jesus Christ.
For Fr. Smith, the knock on the door was a call away from the parish
life he loved and into a seminary where he could communicate that love
to others. He knew that it was Christ who called, Christ who was on the
other side of the door of his heart. In 1971, he answered that door,
becoming professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph's seminary.
"What we have seen and heard we proclaim in turn to you so that you may
share life with us" (1 John 1:2). Fr. Smith had never imagined himself
as a teacher, but seminary teaching is much different from a college
professorship. At the seminary, he is "teaching his own", playing a
role in enriching the ministry of the diocese. Also there is a strong
pastoral component to seminary teaching; by knowing what the Church
expects of her priests and integrating it with his own life, Fr. Smith
is able to communicate the essence of that openness that characterizes
the diocesan priestly vocation. In addition, the current situation has
created its own special difficulties. Many young men come to the
seminary without a clear knowledge of the essentials of the faith. This
means that there is an added need for communication between the faculty
and the seminarians. "Righteous and true are your ways" (Rev. 15:3).
Theology embraces a way of life, and it is essential both for the sake
of fidelity to the Gospel and for the happiness and stability of the
candidate that he be at peacewith what the Church teaches. "Better to
talk out a problem here than live it out later on," Fr. Smith points
Thus St. Joseph's seminary has maintained its own "peace" as an
institution dedicated to the Gospel during a time when some other
seminaries in America are tossing about in a sea of irrelevant novelty
and a crippling lack of discernment. Soon after Fr. Smith's arrival as a
professor, now-Bishop Vaughan became Rector of the seminary, bringing
his lucid sense of the Church and its authentic renewal into the
administration of St. Joseph's.
This particular seminary thus has had an important role not only in
training its own priests, but also in representing the teaching Church.
As the 1970's wore on, issues of ethics became prominent in New York
politics and in the national public forum. The Archdiocese of New York
was continually called upon to present the teaching of the Church, often
to a hostile, secular audience. Cardinal Cooke needed an articulate and
knowledgeable spokesman who could grapple with issues that were having a
serious impact on American public life, as well as a confusing effect
onthe faithful. There was a knock on the seminary door, and Fr. Smith
"I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for fighting" (Ps. 120:7).
Under Cardinal Cooke and his successor Cardinal O'Connor, Fr. Smith has
spoken for the Church on a variety of moral topics, proclaiming me
Gospel even in the most unfavorable circumstances. He has appeared on
national television programs, including the Today Show, Phil Donahue,
David Suskind, 20/20, First Estate, Good Morning America, Firing Line,
and Cable Network News, and has also written numerous articles and given
His involvement in the public realm of ideas and issues convinced Fr.
Smith more and more that the Word of God, particularly as it is
expressed in the intellectual apostolate, was frequently misunderstood
and increasingly unpopular. Loyal Catholic thinkers abounded, but they
were isolated from one another, forced to face hostile forces in the
world-even in the Church-alone. The burden of this situation could
become too great for some to bear. "There's always the danger that
you'll be shaving one morning and you'll think, 'Maybe I'm the one who's
crazy!" This realization prompted Fr. Smith and several other concerned
intellectuals to found the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in order to
provide a sense of solidarity in the midst of crisis, reminiscent of the
great sense of teamwork he remembered so well from his youth. "Don't be
conquered by evil but conquer evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). Fr. Smith
served as president from 1981 to 1983.
"He has spoken to us through His Son" (Heb. 1:2). In all of his
activities as seminary professor, whether proclaiming the teachings of
the Church or dealing directly with his seminarian students, Fr. Smith
sees that same consistency-within-diversity that characterizes parish
life: "Whatever comes up, comes up, and you deal with it." A seminary
priest, or a parish priest, or any priest in the diocese simply has to
examine every task, break it into manageable parts, and go to work;
keeping in mind at all times a supernatural vision, a conviction of the
reality and primacy of the spiritual. This means seeing Jesus Christ in
the substance and at the end of every priestly duty. "It pleased God to
make absolute fullness reside in him and, by means of him, to reconcile
everything in his person" (Col. 11:19). Such a vision is impossible
without three components that Fr. Smith continually stresses to his
students and to anyone who will listen: sound doctrine, in order to
know Jesus Christ; sound interior life, in order to encounter Christ
in prayer and the sacraments, increasing love and union with Him; and
sound personal practice, in order to serve Christ as He presents Himself
in the demands of priestly life.
Jesus Christ is the goal and Jesus Christ is found everywhere, linked as
He is to the destiny of every human being. Therefore it is impossible
for a faithful priest to be idle. "Go visit the sick or teach some kids
the Hail Mary," Fr. Smith would say to priests who find time on their
hands. "No honest priest would say that he has nothing to do."
Nevertheless, the devoted parish priest often serves with a zeal known
only to God, and even if he does become a celebrity in the course of his
duties, his ultimate successes are usually hidden ones: "Some of the
most important things we work at will never show up in a cost/benefit
analysis, nor in a book, nor in a glossy magazine," Fr. Smith observes.
The greatest deeds, done to Jesus in the persons and situations that
plant themselves on the front doorstep of the diocesan priest, are
written only in the Book of Life. "O search me, God, and know my heart"
Fr. Smith, with his strong sense of the meaning of the priesthood, and
his recognized status within the intellectual community, was the ideal
choice for Dean of the Seminary in 1977. His approach to theology is
professional and scholarly but at the same time embraces the full sense
of "faith seeking understanding." Knowing that "if theology were sheerly
knowledge, it could be done by a correspondence course," Fr. Smith tries
to integrate knowledge with life, so that his candidates increase in
wisdom. "Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you" (Jas 4:7).
In addition to his seminary work, Fr. Smith helps out in various other
works within the diocese; he assists at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish
in Scarsdale, New York on Sundays, works as Vice-Chancellor-of the
Archdiocese during the summer, and serves as chaplain for the South
Bronx house of the Missionaries of Charity, a work which brought him to
Calcutta, India to preach retreats to Mother Teresa and her sisters
during Christmas of 1983.
Finally, it was in recognition of his service that, at the
recommendation of Cardinal O'Connor, Pope John Paul II conferred the
title of Monsignor upon William Smith in March of 1986. This honor
singles out Msgr. Smith for his loyalty to the Church and loyalty to
duty. During his twenty years in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, he has
answered the door for parishioners, high school students, seminarians,
religious, the inquiring secular press, and-always-the Cardinal
Archbishop of New York. One might say that the door, so often used, is
simply left open, lest the appearance of Christ with His ever-present
call might for a moment be obscured. And most often it is young men who
walk through the passageway, following the same Christ, who has brought
them to St. Joseph's Seminary to become His priests. For these, Msgr.
Smith has one especially important message, a message he has tried to
live: "Wherever you are assigned by the Bishop as a diocesan priest
really does not matter too much, but what matters very much is that we
be faithful. If it involves some public attention or no notice at all,
what difference? St. Luke's gospel tells us what makes the difference
and what really matters: 'We have done no more than our duty'"
This is Chapter Four of the book, Fishers of Men, published in
1986 by Trinity Communications.
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