Bishop O'Connell imposes hands on the head of Rev. Mr. James Smith, ordaining him a priest. Craig Pittelli photo
Bishop O'Connell imposes hands on the head of Rev. Mr. James Smith, ordaining him a priest. Craig Pittelli photo

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

Father James R. Smith, ordained June 2 by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., hadn’t seen the glimmers of life as a priest during his childhood – but others had.

Photo Gallery: Father Smith celebrates first Mass in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, West Trenton.

As his mother worked in the rectory of their home parish, Incarnation in Ewing, other parishioners surmised he might join the ranks of these men of God.

“Being raised in a Catholic family, I was well-rooted in my faith,” said the 39-year-old Father Smith, one of four children born to Deborah and Robert Smith Sr. He attended Trenton’s Parkway Elementary, then graduated in 1993 from Incarnation Parish School, Ewing. (Incarnation Parish is now Incarnation-St. James.)

Following his graduation from Ewing High School in 1997, the young Smith worked in a number of jobs for more than 10 years, including as a jeweler and a bassist who produced and performed music with numerous area bands.

He also became engaged.

“As a musician, the late-night gigging meant I didn’t always attend church steadily,” he remembered. “But, when I was engaged, I began to make more time for it at my home parish. Before I knew it, the movement of the Holy Spirit led me to daily Mass, then to Adoration, praying the Rosary, joining the parish pro-life group and the Knights of Columbus.”

The intensity of his re-awakened faith life and a diagnosis with a serious health challenge in late 2008 “was difficult for both me and my fiancée,” he admitted. “Feeling it would be best to part ways, I took a few more years to discern [the priesthood].”

His health problems resolved, the now single man moved back into his family home and pursued liberal arts studies in Mercer County Community College, West Windsor.

Room to Grow

Father Smith enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, in 2012 and earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities and philosophy two years later. There, the seminarian continued his studies, earning his sacred theology baccalaureate and master of divinity degrees in May.

While at seminary, Father Smith served summer assignments in Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton; St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, and the diocesan Chancery, where he assisted Msgr. James Innocenzi, diocesan judicial vicar, with annulment cases.

One of his favorite forms of ministry was to serve as extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center, Lawrenceville.

“It is a good experience for anyone, a Corporal Work of Mercy to visit the sick and bring them communion. It is a true ministry of presence,” he said.

Most recently, he served his year as a transitional deacon in Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton. Reflecting upon this most recent assignment, Father Smith said, “The word ‘transitional’ really does modify the word ‘deacon.’ It has been a year of complete transition.”

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still work to be done,” he said. “Part of transitioning is preparing for the future, but so is leaving well, reaching out to those who made an impact on your life, giving thanks for the ways in which they have been a part of this journey.”

A Spiritual Bridge

Asked which aspect of the priesthood he most anticipates, Father Smith quickly replied, “Celebrating the Mass, meeting new people, ministering to them in a way that will help them be closer with Christ.

“Today, our society is so quick to back away from the name of Jesus,” he said. “We have been reading of St. Paul’s trials in the Acts of the Apostles [during the Easter season]. St. Paul never backed away from the name of Jesus. The role of the priest is to be a bridge to Jesus for everyone whom he encounters.”

The future priest used an anecdote from his musician days on the road to express his joy at leaving God in charge of his life.

“You know the words from the old Baltimore Catechism, ‘God made us to know him, to love him and to serve him, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.’ To serve God means putting aside what we want so that we can embrace God’s will; we put aside the reins to let God reign.

“When I was a musician, it was difficult to get my friends to drive to faraway gigs, so I used to drive them myself so they could see me,” he continued. “Now, with God at the reins, I find it more comforting to let him do the driving and for me to take the passenger seat. As the saying goes, ‘If God’s your passenger, then you’re in the wrong seat!’”