Msgr. William Smith

Author: John Janaro

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 world.

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 his vocation.

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 direction."

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 their service.

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 the bishop.

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 as short
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 power
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 vital
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 out.

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 answered.

"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 important lectures.

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" (Ps. 139:24).

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'"
(Lk. 17:10).

This is Chapter Four of the book, Fishers of Men, published in 1986 by Trinity Communications.