At each Rite of Election ceremony, Bishop Smith would always wave as the names of the catechumens were called by the parish representatives. Monitor file photo

At each Rite of Election ceremony, Bishop Smith would always wave as the names of the catechumens were called by the parish representatives. Monitor file photo

From staff reports

Faithful from across the Diocese of Trenton are coming together Jan. 25 and 26 to mourn the death of retired Bishop John Mortimer Smith.  The Ninth Bishop of Trenton, who served in that role for 13 years, died Jan. 22 in Morris Hall Meadows, Lawrenceville, after a long illness. He was 83 years old.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who succeeded Bishop Smith as head of the Diocese in 2010, told the Diocese in a Jan. 22 statement that it was his “sad duty” to announce the death of his predecessor.  Bishop O’Connell, along with several other priests and a close friend, was with Bishop Smith and prayed over him at the time of his death. 

Bishop Smith led the Trenton Diocese from 1997-2010, retiring upon the naming of Bishop O’Connell and 10th Bishop of Trenton. A New Jersey native, Bishop Smith first came to the Diocese of Trenton as its Coadjutor Bishop, and served in that role from 1995-1997 under Bishop John C. Reiss.  Prior to that, he was Bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida from 1991-1995, and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark from 1988-1991. Newark was his home archdiocese; he was ordained a priest there May 27, 1961.

Bishop Smith’s funeral rites, all located in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, are set to begin Jan. 25, with Reception of the Body at 3 p.m., followed by visitation. The Mass of Jesus Christ the High Priest is being celebrated that day at 7 p.m. and a Mass of Christian Burial is scheduled for Jan. 26, at 11 a.m.  Bishop Smith will be entombed in the Mausoleum of St. Mary Cemetery in Trenton.

A Life for Christ

John Mortimer Smith was born June 23, 1935, in Orange, the oldest of three children of Ethel Charnock Smith and Mortimer F. Smith, now deceased. He is survived by two brothers, Benedictine Father Andrew Smith, serving in St. Mary Abbey in Morristown, and Gregory Smith

The future bishop attended St. John Elementary School in Orange, and St. Benedict Preparatory School, Newark. Later, when his family had moved to Cleveland, he attended John Carroll University. The Smith family then returned to New Jersey and John pursued studies for the priesthood in 1955 in Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in classical languages from Seton Hall University, South Orange, in 1957, and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, in 1961.

Following his May 27, 1961, priestly ordination in Sacred Heart Cathedral, Newark, Father Smith was appointed to the Archdiocesan Chancery, where he served in an administrative capacity and was then assigned to return to The Catholic University of America for studies in canon law, earning a doctoral degree in 1966.

Upon returning to the Archdiocese, Father Smith served posts as Assistant Chancellor, Defender of the Bond in the Archdiocese’s Tribunal and archdiocesan coordinator of the English Cursillo Movement. He was also a visiting professor in pastoral theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, served six years as an elected representative on the Newark Archdiocesan Council of Priests, and three years a dean of Central Bergen County.

In 1971, Father Smith was named a Papal Chamberlain with the title of “Monsignor” by now Pope St. Paul VI, and in June, 1973, was appointed to the first team ministry in St. Joseph Parish, Oradell, where he served for nine years as a parish priest.

In 1982, Msgr. Smith was named to the faculty of the Pontifical North American College in Rome as Director for the Institute for Continuing Theological Education and Program Director of the U.S. Bishops’ Consultation IV in 1982, to assist with the theological updating and spiritual renewal of U.S. priests on sabbatical in Rome.

After four years in Rome, Msgr. Smith returned to the Newark Archdiocese in 1986 and was named pastor of St. Mary Parish, Dumont, chairman of the archdiocesan Vocation Board and Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia.

On Dec. 1, 1987, he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Newark and titular bishop of Tre Taverne, Italy, by now-Pope St. John Paul II, celebrating his episcopal ordination Jan. 25, 1988 in Sacred Heart Cathedral. On June 25, 1991, he was named third bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., and installed July 31, 1991.

Home in Trenton

On Nov. 21, 1995, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, Apostolic Nuncio, announced in Washington, D.C., that Pope John Paul II had named Bishop Smith to be Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton. The appointment meant that Bishop Smith would return to New Jersey and serve alongside Bishop John C. Reiss, Bishop of Trenton, assisting him during the remainder of his episcopal ministry.

Bishop Smith succeeded Bishop Reiss in 1997 when the Holy Father accepted Bishop Reiss’ resignation. Bishop Smith was officially welcomed as Coadjutor Bishop of Trenton during a Mass in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Feb. 22, 1996, on the day when the Universal Church commemorated the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

Responding to a Changing Church

Throughout his time as Chief Shepherd of the Diocese, Bishop Smith embarked on a series of initiatives in parishes, social service programs, Catholic schools and to prepare clergy and lay people for their ministry to God’s people.

Acknowledging that parishes faced the formidable responsibility of ministering to the Diocese’s growing and changing Catholic population, Bishop Smith made it a key priority to find viable ways of supporting efforts to create and sustain viable communities, exploring ways to raise additional funds and establishing the first Bishop’s Annual Appeal.

Bishop Smith also approved the development of new programs to prepare lay persons to take a more active role in ministering to a changing Catholic community.  Formation opportunities were offered to catechists, youth and young adult leaders, pastoral caregivers, family life ministers and other areas parish service.

To help the Diocese respond to demographic changes and a shrinking number of vocations, Bishop Smith created the diocesan Office of Research and Planning in 2003 to determine the best plan for parishes in the future. To guide this process, Bishop Smith promulgated the document, “Eleven Elements of a Vibrant Parish,” which focused on parishioner involvement in leadership and liturgical life; adequate and well-trained pastoral staff; commitment to evangelization and religious education; membership that is balanced in number and diverse in ethnicity, gender and age; financial stability, and facilities that were adequate for the needs of the parish.

In 2005, Bishop Smith also began a strategic planning process for schools in the Diocese, setting forth three criteria that all schools must meet to fulfill their mission – strong Catholic identity, academic excellence and financial viability. The study also led to the publication of “Committed to Excellence,” which outlined goals, objectives and action steps in all areas of education.

In August, 2009, Bishop Smith inaugurated and promulgated a new pastoral plan, Led By the Spirit, which identified seven pastoral priorities pertaining to charity and justice, pastoral leadership, ethnic diversity, youth and young adult ministry, faith formation and Sunday worship. The seven priorities resulted in some redesign of the diocesan administrative structure to better support the priorities.

Wider Call to Serve

Among the many committees that Bishop Smith had served since his 1988 episcopal ordination include the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Nominations; the United States Catholic Conference Communications Committee; the Board of Directors of the North American College in Rome; the Bishop’s Committee on Migration and Refugee Services; the Southeast Regional Office for Hispanic Affairs and the Southeast Pastoral Institute. Bishop Smith also served six years on the Board of Directors for Catholic Relief Services and made five visits to Africa on behalf of the board. He was a member of the Board of Regents at Seton Hall University and of St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

Passing on the Torch 

In June, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI named Bishop O’Connell as Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese, which meant he would succeed Bishop Smith upon his retirement. On Dec. 1, 2010, Bishop Smith’s resignation, which had been submitted to Rome in accordance with canon law, was accepted by the Holy Father, and Bishop O’Connell was named the 10th Bishop of Trenton.

In May, 2011, faithful from throughout the Diocese gathered with Bishop Smith in the Cathedral to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.